A former South Korean governor and one-time presidential contender has been acquitted of sexual assault by coercion in one of the highest profile cases to emerge from the MeToo movement in South Korea.
Ahn Hee-jung, the former governor of South Chungcheong province, was accused of rape and assault by his secretary Kim Ji-eun, who made the allegations during an 18-minute interview with South Korean news channel JTBC in March.
Ahn was later charged with multiple counts of sexual harassment and five counts of sexual coercion by an employer. The court ruled Tuesday he was not guilty of all counts, according to the public prosecutor’s office for the Seoul Western District, which said it would appeal the decision.
“We respect the decision of the court but it is difficult to understand its ruling of not guilty,” prosecutors said in a statement.
“The victim had consistently testified the details of the crime, had expressed refusal to the accused’s demands, and had spoken of her suffering to many around her,” the statement added.
Ahn spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was delivered, saying he was sorry and would “endeavor to be re-born.”
“I’m ashamed. I have disappointed you all,” he said.
Before the allegations surfaced, Ahn was seen as a rising star in the ruling Democratic party. He was the runner up to current President Moon Jae-in to represent the party in last year’s presidential election.
After Kim’s interview, Ahn apologized on his Facebook and announced he would resign his post and suspend all his political activities.
Korean society has long been considered more conservative and male-dominated, where women are expected to be silent and accepting in the face of unfair treatment or even sexual assault. Female sexual assault victims are often themselves criticized for not behaving “properly” or not having requisite “shame” about revealing sexual behavior, even if it was not consensual.
The MeToo movement, however, has encouraged women like Kim to speak out about their experiences. In the interview in March, Kim said by sharing her story she hoped to encourage others to come forward.
As the movement gained momentum, the South Korean government announced plans to raise the maximum punishment and extend the statute of limitations for some sexual violence crimes. However, rights advocates say there is still a long way to go.
South Korean women are pushing for change, and have taken their calls for greater gender equality to the streets of Seoul. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of protested against the use of hidden cameras, known as “molka,” to film unsuspecting victims, most of whom are female.
Similar demonstrations took place earlier this summer after a South Korean woman was charged with surreptitiously taking pictures of a nude male model in a university art class.
Advocates said the defendant is the victim of bias and sexism, arguing many similar cases against men go unpunished and do not receive the same level of publicity.
“No case ever received as much media attention as this,” a protest leader told South Korea’s Yonhap News in June.
The suspect, who was only identified by her surname, was found guilty and sentenced Monday to 10 months in prison and 40 hours of rehabilitation.
According to South Korean authorities, 5,185 hidden camera-related criminal cases were recorded in 2016, a three-fold increase from 1,523 in 2011. The vast majority of victims are women and the perpetrators, men.
Of the cases that went to trial from 2009 to 2016, only 5% ever received a jail sentence, according to the Korean Women Lawyers Association.
CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report