|Soldiers in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, last month. Rights groups say there is a campaign against gay men in the country’s 620,000-member military. Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times|
SEOUL, South Korea — A military court in South Korea sentenced an army captain to six months in prison on Wednesday for having sex with other servicemen, igniting an outcry against what rights groups called a homophobic “witch hunt” in the country’s military.
The prison term for the captain was suspended for one year, which meant that if he did not break the law again in the next year, he would not go to prison. But he will be dishonorably discharged unless his conviction is overturned by an appeals court.
The captain, whose name was not disclosed, collapsed when the verdict was announced in military court, and he was taken to a hospital after hurting his head, said Lim Tae-hoon, the director of the Military Human Rights Center.
Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the verdict and urging the South Korean military to end “a bigoted hunt to root out gay personnel.”
“No one should be persecuted based on their sexual orientation, activity or gender identity alone,” Roseann Rife, the director of East Asia research at Amnesty International, said in the statement.
“What counts is their service, not their sexuality,” she added.
Ms. Rife said South Korea should repeal an “archaic and discriminatory” provision in its Military Criminal Act that outlaws sex between gay soldiers and to “get up to date when it comes to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex people.”
The South Korean military criminal code outlaws sodomy and other unspecified “disgraceful conduct” between servicemen, whether or not there is mutual consent and whether or not that conduct takes place in or outside military compounds. Those found to have violated the act face up to two years in prison.
In South Korea, the rights of sexual minorities are a largely taboo and politically unpopular subject. In recent years, powerful right-wing Christian groups have intensified a campaign against homosexuality, scuttling a bill that would have given sexual minorities the same protections as other minority groups.
During his presidential campaign, the country’s newly elected leader, Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer and liberal, disappointed rights groups who have otherwise supported him by saying that he opposed homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The captain was arrested on April 13, as the army was ferreting out dozens of soldiers suspected of having same-sex relationships in what rights groups said was a campaign against gay men in the 620,000-member military. At least 32 faced criminal charges of violating the Military Criminal Act, according to the domestic news media and lawyers and rights advocates familiar with the cases.
The officer was arrested in a Seoul hotel, where he was staying while on an official trip, said Mr. Lim, whose group advocates the rights of gay soldiers and provided legal assistance to the captain.
The captain was arrested days before he was scheduled to leave the army, Mr. Lim said. All of his sexual activities were consensual and took place in private spaces, like his home, Mr. Lim said. None of the servicemen the captain had sex with served in his unit, he added.
Amnesty International said South Korean “gay men face enormous difficulties in fulfilling their military obligations free from violence, bullying or verbal abuse.” Under the conscript system of South Korea, all eligible men are required to serve about two years.
South Korea has been slow to respect and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in society at large, Amnesty International said. In its 2015 review of South Korea, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also mentioned continuing widespread violence and hate speech against such individuals in the country.
The crackdown on gay soldiers began early this year when the army was tipped to a video clip on social media that showed a soldier and an officer, both men, having sex. (The captain sentenced on Wednesday was not in the video.)
The army insisted that it was not discriminating against gay soldiers; instead it said that it was trying to root out illegal homosexual activities.
Right-wing Christian and other conservative groups have argued that sex among gay soldiers would help spread AIDS in the South Korean military and undermine its readiness to fight North Korea.
Mr. Lim’s group accused the army of setting up fake profiles on dating apps to lure gay military personnel into revealing their identities and subjecting them to humiliating homophobic interrogations, although the army’s own regulations forbid identifying or outing gay men or asking about their sexual experiences.