SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a near unanimous vote, South Korea's parliament approved a tougher law against sex crimes Friday, inspired in part by a recent movie based on a real-life case of sexually abused deaf children.
"The Crucible," a box-office hit since its release last month, fueled long-running criticism that the legal system is too soft on sex offenders. The legislation is South Korea's latest attempt to address that.
The bill eliminates the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children under 13 and disabled women and increases the maximum penalty to life in prison. Current law says the term must be less than life.
President Lee Myung-bak is expected to sign the bill into effect within a couple of weeks.
Endorsed by both the ruling and opposition parties, the legislation passed by a 207-0 vote. One lawmaker abstained.
Rep. Park Jun-sun, from the ruling Grand National Party, said that the bill sends a message to sex offenders that they will be tracked down "to the very end."
The broad support shows how angry people have become toward child sex offenders, especially after the release of "The Crucible," said Rep. Lee Choon-suak from the opposition Democratic Party.
The movie has drawn 4.5 million viewers, almost one-tenth of South Korea's population, according to the state-funded Korean Film Council. The viewers included President Lee and high-ranking judges and prosecutors, many of whom have vowed tough preventive measures.
A series of widely publicized sex crimes against children in recent years — including the rape of an 8-year-old girl on her way to school in 2008 — has sparked criticism of the country's laws.
Last year, South Korea scrapped a law that barred the prosecution of a child sex offender unless the victim made the complaint himself or herself. The country has also legalized chemical castration and the collection of DNA samples from sex criminals.
"Children live their whole life in fear if offenders are not tracked down and locked away," the father of the 8-year-old victim said in an interview. His name is being withheld to protect her identity.
Earlier this year, he teamed up with a children's foundation on an online petition aimed at scrapping the statute of limitations for child sex crimes.
The release of the movie gave a huge boost to the movement and the legislation, which appeared to be in danger of dying without a vote. More than 300,000 people had signed the petition as of Friday, up from about 70,000 a week ago, and the number was rising every minute.
The movie, directed by Hwang Dong-hyeok, is based on a novel, which in turn was based on a court case in the southwestern city of Gwangju.
Two teachers were convicted for sexually harassing two students at Gwangju Inhwa School. One was sentenced to two years, and the other to six months. The principal was convicted of raping a third student, but the court gave him a suspended 2 1/2-year term, citing a compensation deal he had reached with the victim.
In the movie, all three faculty members get away with suspended terms even though two are convicted of rape and one of molestation.
Many viewers have mistaken the plot for the true story and slammed the court for letting all three off. The court has tried to clarify the difference, only to draw criticism that its actual verdict was still too soft.
Pyo Chang-won, an assistant professor at the Korea National Police University, said time limits on criminal investigations help prevent frivolous claims and guard against prosecutions when memories may have grown cloudy. But he said advances in DNA technology have enabled investigators to prove a case even after many years. Pyo also said children know little about how to report sexual abuse and often don't have the courage to do so.
Lee Eun-sang of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center said that, between 2004 and 2006, her counseling center received more than 650 complaints from sex abuse victims that had exceeded the statute of limitations. She could not provide more recent figures.
Elsewhere, Britain has no statute of limitations on child sex crimes and a number of U.S. states have done away with statutes of limitations for rape cases regardless of the age of the victim, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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