Mass protest in Taiwan over young conscript's death

TAIPEI (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Taiwanese took to the streets on Saturday in protest over the death of a young conscript who died from alleged abuse in the latest scandal to rock the island's government.

Singing a Taiwanese take on the revolutionary song Do You Hear The People Sing? from the hit musical Les Miserables, protesters rallied at a square near the presidential office in Taipei, mostly dressed in white - a colour symbolising truth in local culture.

This was the second mass protest since corporal Hung Chung-chiu died of heatstroke on July 4 - apparently after being forced to exercise excessively as punishment for taking a smartphone onto his base - just three days before the end of his compulsory year-long military service.

About 30,000 people demonstrated outside the defence ministry in the capital on July 20, according to Citizen 1985, an activist group that organised the protests.

"We estimate a bigger turnout today on the eve of Hung's funeral than the previous protest. We hope the government will hear the people's anger at its handling of the case," Liu Lin-wei, a spokesman for the group, told AFP.

Police estimates of the crowd size were not immediately available.

"I am mourning for Hung Chung-chiu and I want the truth. I hope there won't be any more abuse and death like his in the military," said protester Jenny Tan.

President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval ratings have plummeted in recent months, has apologised for the incident and vowed to seek justice for the victim and punish those responsible.

Amid mounting public anger, defence minister Kao Hua-chu stepped down earlier this week while 18 military officials have been charged over Hung's death, including the former commander of his brigade.

They were indicted on charges ranging from abuse leading to death and involuntary manslaughter to imposing illegal punishment on a subordinate and offences against personal liberty, according to military prosecutors.

The 24-year-old had been subjected to exercises that were "unbearable, cruel and abusive", resulting in his death from multiple organ failure triggered by heatstroke, prosecutors said.

He was sent to solitary confinement and ordered to do the exercises as a punishment for bringing a camera phone to camp and for defying his superiors on some duty assignments, according to the indictment.

Hung's family have said that he had previously filed complaints about other abuse meted out by his superiors.

Prosecutors did not specify what jail terms they were seeking. Legal experts say the most severe charge is of abuse leading to death, which is punishable by life imprisonment.

Citizen 1985 has criticised the indictment as "hasty and sloppy", saying only one sergeant was charged with fatally abusing while other higher ranking officers were indicted with lesser charges.

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