October 30, 2014 / 8:19 AM / 3 years ago

South Korean court-martial jails soldiers in hazing death case

YONGIN South Korea (Reuters) - A South Korean court-martial convicted four soldiers on Thursday of homicide for the beating death of a fellow conscript and sentenced them to long prison terms in a case that sparked an outcry about how enlisted are treated.

Private First Class Yoon Seung-joo, 20, died in April after more than a month of almost daily beating and other abuse.

The case shocked South Korea, which maintains a military of about 630,000, many of them conscripts who serve about two years, and led to the resignation of the army chief of staff.

A panel of three military judges sentenced the four defendants to prison terms ranging from 25 to 45 years. The military prosecutor had sought the death penalty for one of them, a sergeant accused of being the main offender.

The four did not speak in court on Thursday and their lawyers were not available for comment after the verdict. The defendants said earlier they had not intended to kill Yoon.

Members of Yoon's family, angered by what they regarded as a lesser charge of homicide, tried to rush the defendants after the sentences were handed down and had to be held back by military police.

"How is this not murder?" Yoon's crying mother, Ahn Mi-ja, told reporters after the sentencing. "I'm going to leave this country. I can't live here any more."

Military prosecutors said they would appeal to seek tougher sentences.

During the trial, witnesses testified that Yoon was beaten and denied food and sleep. The defendants had beaten and tormented him in the moments before he collapsed and died, one witness said.

Military leaders have pledged to reform the armed forces and the treatment of conscripts. Under changes introduced by military leaders, conscripts are allowed more visits at their bases and days off and barracks have been upgraded.

But some critics say the military has to change a culture of abuse, mostly among enlisted soldiers, and do something about commanders' inability to stop it.

"I have doubts about whether people will trust the reform of military culture," said Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Center for Military Human Rights who exposed the beating death case and who now sits on a military panel charged with studying reforms.

North and South Korea are technically at war because they only signed a truce to end of their 1950-53 war, not a treaty. The North has about 1.2 million active duty troops and is one of the world's most militarised states.

Editing by Jack Kim and Robert Birsel

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