SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean military court sentenced six soldiers to up to 45 years in prison on Thursday for bullying and beating a subordinate who died, the Defense Ministry said.
Military prosecutors said the soldiers bullied the victim regularly for about a month, and struck him in the chest and forced him to swallow a chunk of food that lodged in his throat before he died in April.
A ministry official said the sentences ranged from 45 years to a six-month suspended term. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.
Army officials said prosecutors will appeal the ruling because they believe the sentences are too lenient.
Bullying and hazing are serious problems in the military. All able-bodied men are required to serve about two years in the military in South Korea, which remains technically in a state of war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
Military prosecutors originally charged four of the defendants with homicide, a crime punishable by up to death, although South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997.
However, the military court acquitted them on the homicide charges and instead found them guilty of manslaughter because it was unclear whether they had intended to kill the victim, the Defense Ministry official said.
Relatives of the dead soldier, surnamed Yoon, responded angrily to the verdicts. His father attempted to rush toward the judges before being stopped by military police, according to the Yonhap news agency.
"How is this not homicide?" Yoon's mother shouted tearfully outside the court in Yongin, just south of Seoul, according to TV footage.
An activist group revealed Yoon's death in July, leading to widespread criticism that the military may have attempted to conceal the case.
In June, a conscript soldier went on a shooting spree in a frontline army unit, killing five colleagues. He told investigators that he opened fire after being bullied by them for an extended period.