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US Soldier Cleared in Deaths of S. Korea Schoolgirls in Controversial Case - 2002-11-20


An American soldier is cleared of negligent homicide in the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls killed by a mine clearing vehicle. Activists dismiss the court martial as a charade and pledge protests against the verdict.

Sergeant Fernando Nino's trial lasted three days at Camp Casey, a U.S. army base just north of Seoul. The soldier would have faced six years in a U.S. prison if he had been found guilty of negligent homicide.

The soldier was riding in an armored vehicle in June that ran over the two 14-year-old schoolgirls. They were crushed to death on their way to a friend's birthday party.

The panel of seven service men and women deliberated for three hours before finding the soldier not guilty of criminal misconduct.

The decision has enraged South Korean activists who have demanded that the soldiers be handed over to a South Korean court. They dismissed the court martial as a "superficial stunt." A spokeswoman for an anti-U.S. military group said the case had not been investigated and prosecutors did not have enough evidence.

Since the accident, the American ambassador to South Korea, the head of U.S. forces in South Korea and Secretary of State Colin Powell have repeatedly apologized for the deaths.

After the verdict, the U.S. Army commander in South Korea called on the public to respect the verdict. He said the decision of the court panel was based on a thorough review of all the evidence.

He also said the Army has changed safety procedures to prevent such accidents.

Activists say a bilateral agreement means that many U.S. soldiers do not face trial for crimes they commit in South Korea.

There are 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea. The military has jurisdiction over American troops who commit crimes while on duty. It decides to hand over soldiers to Korean civilian courts on a case-by-case basis.

The prosecutor charged that Sergeant Nino was not paying attention while commanding the tank-like mine clearing vehicle and he did not notice soldiers signaling it to stop. The defense lawyer said Sergeant Nino tried to warn the driver through the communication system.

Much of the argument during the court martial focused on the communication system. Soldiers in mine clearing vehicles talk through helmet microphones because of loud engine noise. During the trial, contradictory accounts surfaced about whether the system was working at the time of the accident.

The driver of the vehicle, Sergeant Mark Walker, goes to trial Thursday. He faces similar charges.

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