A former senior South Korean prosecutor was convicted of abuse of power and jailed for two years on Wednesday in connection with a high-profile case that triggered the country’s #MeToo movement.
Ahn Tae-Geun was accused of repeatedly groping a female junior colleague at the funeral of another co-worker’s father. After Seo Ji-Hyun filed a formal complaint, he had her transferred to a provincial position and her career went nowhere.
She suffered in silence for years until she went public with a tearful live television appearance last January, detailing her experiences.
The interview was a rarity in a still conservative society where female victims of sexual assault are often reluctant to come forward due to fears of shaming.
But it triggered a flood of similar accusations against powerful men in fields ranging from art and literature to politics and religion that grew into a South Korean #MeToo movement.
Ahn — who was separately fired for corruption in 2017 — could not be charged with sexual abuse because the one-year statute of limitations had expired, but prosecutors indicted him for abuse of power for having Seo transferred.
Announcing the verdict at the Seoul Central District Court, judge Lee Sang-Ju said there was sufficient evidence that Ahn transferred Seo away from Seoul “because he was afraid of the consequences of her internal complaint”.
The move “caused significant psychological distress to Seo”, the judge added.
Ahn has always maintained that he had no recollection of the initial incident as he was drunk at the memorial ceremony, but the judge said he was necessarily aware of an internal investigation at the time his accuser was moved.
Wearing a dark suit, Ahn — who had denied the charges — mostly looked down with his eyes shut and fists clenched as the judge delivered his verdict, sighing and looking up to the ceiling as his defence arguments were dismissed one by one.
“This was such an unexpected result,” he said, adding that he would appeal.
In the public gallery, a handful of young women quietly pumped clenched fists into the air as he was sentenced.
The verdict was welcomed by many activists, who described it as “therapeutic” and “pleasantly surprising” after doubts had been raised over the prosecution’s efforts.
It also came months after Ahn Hee-Jung, a former South Korean presidential contender, was acquitted of raping a female aide, a verdict that infuriated women’s rights activists in the country.
“I think the verdict is a sign of change,” said Lee Mi-Kyoung, director of Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, who was present in court Wednesday.
“There are still many victims who suffer in silence. I hope today’s ruling can give them a reason to be hopeful.”
Bae Bok-Ju, another campaigner, regretted that Ahn could not be charged with sexual abuse.
“But today’s ruling at least acknowledged that it’s the power abuse at workplaces that often leads the victims of sexual abuse to stay silent for many years.”