(ATTN: ADDS lawyer's comments, new allegations, more details in last 9 paras, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- Military prosecutors, military police and the defense ministry will form a joint investigation team to look into the suicide of a sexually harassed Air Force noncommissioned officer amid snowballing suspicions that her unit attempted to cover up the harassment and downplay her death.
The defense ministry also decided to establish an investigation review committee involving civilian experts for the first time to make sure that the probe is conducted in a transparent and thorough manner.
The victim, a master sergeant, was found dead at her home inside the base in the western city of Seosan last month, about three months after a colleague of the same rank allegedly groped her and forced her to touch his body parts inside a car on their way to the base after a drinking session she was forced to attend.
Bereaved family members claimed that even though the victim reported the case to authorities, they failed to take appropriate measures to protect her and instead tried to persuade her to reach a settlement with the suspect.
The Air Force police had not taken the suspect, surnamed Jang, into custody and not secured his cellphone until late last month, even though he admitted to part of the allegations. It was only Wednesday this week that Jang was arrested.
In violation of due manuals, the Air Force also failed to mention the sexual harassment case linked to her death when it reported the death to the defense ministry, raising suspicions that it tried to play down the death.
Amid intense criticism following such revelations, the case was referred to the defense ministry Tuesday and the military court issued a warrant to arrest the man the following day.
"We will also summon all service members who are suspected of attempting to conceal the case and threatening the victim. We are looking into the case from scratch," a military official said.
The bereaved family also raised fresh allegations that the victim was sexually harassed by two senior officers before, and members of her unit allegedly pressed her not to raise the issue.
One of the two is a warrant officer who tried to persuade the victim to reach a settlement in the latest case, while the other is a a noncomissioned officer loaned to her unit last year, lawyer Kim Jeong-hwan told reporters.
"We are reviewing all related cases and will bring those involved to justice," he said right before filing additional complaints with the military prosecution against three noncommissioned officers on charges of negligence of duties, attempted coercion or sexual harassment.
The military prosecution, as well as the defense ministry's audit office and the criminal investigation command, will conduct a joint probe, and the ministry's welfare department will be in charge of offering full support for the bereaved family, according to the ministry.
It is also working to set up and run a 10-member committee involving outside experts to ensure credibility of the investigation. It is the first time ever that the military prosecution is establishing such an entity.
President Moon Jae-in strongly instructed military investigators Thursday to conduct a thorough probe and devise stern measures, and Air Force chief Gen. Lee Seong-yong called for a zero-tolerance approach to sex crimes and tighter discipline.
"The unit members are suspected of trying to conceal the case out of fear they were caught violating the COVID-19 quarantine scheme by holding the gathering," the lawyer told a radio program.
More than five people seem to have joined the drinking session on the day, though military members were banned from non-mission critical meetings under the social distancing rules against the new coronavirus.
"The bereaved family demands strict investigations and follow-up measures to prevent any recurrences. I think that's the message that the victim also wanted to leave," he said, adding that the officer recorded herself with her cellphone at the scene where she took her own life .
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