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Prostitutes sue pimps in landmark case
( 2004-01-07 15:34) (Agencies)

Nine former South Korean prostitutes have filed lawsuits against their pimps seeking damages in a landmark legal case, their lawyers said on Tuesday.

Seven of the women say they were lured into prostitution rings as minors under the age of 18 and never received promised up-front payments of as much as 10 million won ($8,400) in addition to room and board.

Prostitution is illegal in South Korea but flourishes in myriad forms -- in large brothel zones, barber shops, bathhouses and "ticket coffee shops" which send prostitutes bearing hot drinks on house calls.

Lawyers representing the nine said they were seeking punitive damages as a way to discourage prostitution involving minors.

"We are dealing with cases that ruin a young woman's whole life," Lee Sung-hwan, one of the lawyers, said by telephone.

Kang Ji-won, who heads the legal team, said seven of the women were seeking 100 million won ($84,000) each for emotional distress and back wages. The other two are seeking 50 million won each in wages withheld.

Promised advances to prostitutes are usually withheld by pimps as security, the lawyers said.

Prostitutes can find themselves in debt to pimps -- many of them in the pay of organized crime groups -- who deduct penalties from the advance if they fail to secure a set number of customers in a given period. Interest is charged when the penalties exceed the advance.

Police in recent years have broken up prostitution rings which keep women as virtual slaves until they earn enough to pay back advances, sometimes until they are too old for the trade.

"They think that one day they will get their money," said Lee Kyung-eun, a director at the Commission on Youth Protection, referring to the indentured women. "So they stay."

The cases are the first brought on behalf of prostitutes by Kang's team, set up in early 2003 with the help of the commission he once headed.

Lee Kyung-eun said the law in South Korea made it difficult for prostitutes to file suits, let alone win them. The law punishes prostitutes as well as pimps, she said.

In addition to the difficulty of collecting evidence in cases which took place years ago, women face possible counter-suits from accused pimps for fraud and defamation, she said.

An amended law on youth protection is set to take effect in March, and it is expected to make lawsuits against prostitution ring operators easier, the lawyers said.

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