SEOUL - A former South Korean presidential contender was found not guilty on all charges on Tuesday in a trial stemming from allegations he raped a female aide several times, prompting immediate controversy.
The case involving Ahn Hee-jung — who before the scandal was widely seen as a strong candidate to replace President Moon Jae-in when his term ends in 2022 — is by far the highest-profile in the country’s growing #MeToo movement.
Ahn was acquitted of forced sexual abuse, sexual intercourse by abuse of authority and other charges by the Seoul Western District Court.
“I am sorry and I am so ashamed,” he said on the courthouse steps.
“I have disappointed many. I will make efforts to be born again,” he went on, as women’s rights activists shouted “It’s not over yet!” at him.
South Korea remains socially patriarchal despite its economic and technological advances, with a male-dominated legal system often accused of handing out verdicts favoring men in sex abuse cases.
Ahn was governor of South Chungcheong province when his aide Kim Ji-eun told a television interview earlier this year that he had raped her four times after she was hired.
Fighting back tears, she said she had been unable to reject her boss in the rigid hierarchy of her office.
The 53-year-old politician issued a formal apology, stepped down from his post and was later indicted, but has always insisted the sex was consensual.
The court said it saw “little evidence” that Ahn used his authority to force Kim into sex, adding the evidence presented by the prosecution — which had demanded four years’ jail for Ahn — was “not enough to prove that Kim’s sexual freedom was violated against her will.”
“There are also many things that were questionable and incomprehensible in the victim’s testimony,” the court ruling said.
In a statement read out by her lawyers, Kim said she would “not feel defeated by today’s unjust result.”
“I will fight … until the day when those using their power to sexually abuse others are held accountable under the laws,” she added.
As the verdict was delivered dozens of women’s rights campaigners condemned Ahn outside the court building, while the politician’s supporters cheered for him.
“Repent, Ahn Hee-jung! What you did was sexual violence!” the activists chanted in unison.
A coalition of dozens of women’s rights groups slammed the closely-watched verdict and urged prosecutors to appeal.
“The court failed to recognize the basic reality faced by the victim, in which she had to choose between resisting Ahn’s order or losing her job and livelihood,” they said in a joint statement.
“The verdict will be interpreted as a signal that female aides working for powerful figures in politics, economy or other fields should remain silent even when they are sexually abused,” they added.
The scandal was an astonishing fall from grace for Ahn, who had enjoyed huge popularity among young, liberal voters thanks to his wholesome image and good looks.
He came second to the current head of state Moon Jae-in in the contest for the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential nomination last year and was seen as a favorite for the next elections.
The #MeToo campaign against the abuse of women swept the South this year after Seoul prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon defied convention to speak out on television about the abuse she suffered at the hands of a powerful superior.
Her move opened the floodgates, prompting more women to come forward to accuse powerful figures in politics, arts, religion, education and entertainment of abuse.