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S. Korea: Trial Begins for Second US Soldier - 2002-11-21


A second U.S. soldier has gone on trial Thursday in South Korea for the deaths of two schoolgirls who were killed by an armored vehicle he was driving. There has been an angry reaction following the acquittal of his colleague, who was riding in the same vehicle. The case is fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in the country.

Sergeant Mark Walker has been charged with criminal misconduct over the deaths of 14-year-old schoolgirls Shim Mi-Son and Shin Hyon-Sun. Sergeant Walker was driving a 50-ton mine-clearing vehicle that ran over and crushed the girls in June.

About 200 protestors gathered outside the U.S. army camp where the court martial is being held. The demonstrators tried to storm the gates as the trial got underway, but were forced back by South Korean riot police.

The number of protestors has grown since the acquittal of Sergeant Fernando Nino on Wednesday of two counts of negligent homicide. The demonstrators have dismissed the trial as a sham. They say the two soldiers should be tried in a South Korean court.

The affair has become a political issue ahead of December's presidential elections. The country's political parties have been unanimous in their criticism of Sergeant Nino's acquittal. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party denounced it as a "fraudulent verdict, unimaginable in a law-abiding country."

The conservative Grand National Party has called for a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement under which the United States has jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers who commit crimes while on duty. The U.S. military can decide on a case-by-case basis to hand accused soldiers over to local authorities. The South Korean government requested jurisdiction in this case, but was turned down.

The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, General Leon J. LaPorte, and other top military officials have called on the public to respect the verdict on Sergeant Nino. General LaPorte says the military justice system guarantees a just trial. "It is a fair and open and impartial system that has worked well in the U.S. military system as well as the history of South Korea," he says.

The U.S. ambassador to Seoul and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeatedly apologized for the deaths, but the case has fanned anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea. Since the deaths of the two girls, there have been a number of run-ins between U.S. soldiers and South Koreans. The U.S. army has warned troops to exercise caution when out in the community.