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Three Japanese ex-soldiers found guilty of sexual assault

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Three Japanese ex-soldiers found guilty of sexual assault

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TOKYO — A Japanese court has found three ex-soldiers guilty of sexually assaulting a female colleague.

The landmark verdict comes after Rina Gonoi, 24, caused a public outcry and drew international attention when she put her story on YouTube in 2022.

Fukushima prosecutors then brought charges against the three men in March, reversing their earlier decision.

Japan is a deeply conservative society where speaking out against sexual violence remains taboo.

Shutaro Shibuya, Akito Sekine and Yusuke Kimezawa received a suspended sentence of two years at a Fukushima court on Tuesday.

This is the first major verdict on sexual assault in Japan since June when the country overhauled its sex crime laws, which included redefining rape and raising the age of consent.

It was the result of years of activism following a series of controversial court rulings that acquitted alleged attackers. Activists say the previous laws often deterred survivors from speaking up.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault

In August 2021, three male colleagues pinned Ms Gonoi to a bed, forcibly spread her legs open and alternately and repeatedly pressed their crotches against her.

She earlier told the BBC that while around a dozen other colleagues were also present at the time, no one stopped the trio: “Many were laughing.”

Ms Gonoi reported the incident to her superiors but her complaint was dismissed as she was unable to obtain any witness testimony.

Later, the three men were referred to prosecutors on suspicion of indecent assault by the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) police unit, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. Ms Gonoi eventually left the army.

Her YouTube video went viral last year and she collected more than 100,000 signatures for a petition calling on the defense ministry to investigate her case. The ministry later apologized to her and launched a rare investigation that officials said found more than 100 other complaints of harassment across the ministry.

But with the publicity also came a barrage of online abuse – and even death threats.

“Some [online] would say ‘you are ugly’…[others] would say ‘are you actually a man?” she told the BBC. “When I was collecting signatures for the petition, I got a threatening email saying, ‘I’ll kill you if you go any further'”.

She added that even before the incident, she experienced sexual harassment “on a daily basis”. Colleagues made remarks about her body and would grope or rub against her with others watching.

Ms Gonoi has also filed a civil lawsuit against the five perpetrators and the Japanese government, seeking 5.5 million yen ($40,000; £32,000) in damages from the men for causing her mental distress, and an additional 2 million yen from the state for its failure to prevent abuse.

Sexual assault is still a taboo subject in Japan and has gained national attention only in recent years in the wake of high-profile cases such as Ms Gonoi, Shiori Ito’s court battle and the Johnny Kitagawa expose.

It was only in June that authorities passed a landmark overhaul of sex crime laws, broadening the definition of rape to “non-consensual sexual intercourse” from “forcible sexual intercourse” – aligning Japanese law’s definition with other countries. The legal age of consent, previously at only 13, was also raised to 16 years.

In addition, the new laws explicitly outline eight scenarios where it is difficult for a victim to “form, express, or fulfill an intention not to consent” to sexual intercourse.

These include situations where the victim is intoxicated with alcohol or drugs; or subject to violence or threats; or is “frightened or astonished”. Another scenario appears to describe an abuse of power, where the victim is “worried” of the consequences of refusal.

Ms Gonoi was included on the BBC 100 Women list of inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2023, and also made it to the TIME100 Next 2023 List. — BBC

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