South Korean court lengthens jail term for former speed skating coach in abuse case

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean appeals court on Wednesday nearly doubled jail time for a former speed skating coach convicted of hitting a two-time Olympic champion, citing a need to warn sports officials against the use of violence as a training tool.

FILE PHOTO - Short Track Speed Skating Events - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's 1500m - Gangneung Ice Arena - Gangneung, South Korea - February 17, 2018 - Shim Suk-hee of South Korea in action. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The case, and the athlete’s accusation that the coach had also sexually abused her, has triggered South Korea’s largest investigation into physical and sexual assaults in sport after the events sparked a flood of similar accusations.

Speed skating has a huge and devoted following in South Korea, which has won 24 gold medals in the sport since it became an Olympic event in 1992, more than any other country.

In September, a lower court had jailed the former national coach, Cho Jae-beom, for 10 months on a conviction of assaulting Olympic champion Shim Suk-hee, 21.

“The defendant...has shown regret but has severely hit the victim with his fists and feet ever since the victim was young, taking as the reason a slack attitude during training,” the Suwon District Court said as it raised the term to 18 months.

“The lower court’s sentencing is too light, therefore unjust,” it added. “There is a great need to sternly warn sports leaders who still consider this as a method of training athletes and fundamentally prevent a repeat of assault incidents.”

The prosecution had sought a two-year sentence on the charges, which Cho had admitted.

“It’s a good thing that the sentence has gone up,” Shim’s lawyer, Im Sang-hyeok, told domestic news agency News1.

“But it still seems too light. I believe more strict punishment is needed. I believe prosecutors will decide on further appeal, if only to send a warning.”

Im did not immediately respond to telephone calls from Reuters.

Police are also investigating accusations Shim made in December that Cho had sexually assaulted her from the time she was 17.

Cho has been questioned twice in January on the sex abuse accusation at a detention centre where he is being held, a police official said.

Cho denies the accusation of sexual abuse, his lawyer Oh Dong-hyun has said. Reuters could not immediately reach Oh by email or telephone.

Cho has not been charged on the sex abuse allegations.

The national outrage over the case has prompted more athletes, in sports such as judo and archery, to come forward with accounts of assault and sexual abuse, media have said.

On Friday, the government said it would hold an inquiry, along with the National Human Rights Commission, to investigate conditions for about 63,000 student athletes, and warned of possible cuts in funding for any sport facing public outcry.

Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez