A South Korean court has acquitted a religious sect leader of charges that he deliberately disrupted the government’s anti-virus response early last year after thousands of his worshippers were infected with the coronavirus.
However, the Suwon District Court on Wednesday found the 89-year-old Lee Man-hee guilty of separate charges that he embezzled more than $5 million in church funds and organized unauthorized worship services in public spaces. His three-year prison term will be suspended for four years.
Lee’s church, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, issued a statement denying his wrongdoings and confirming plans to appeal. Kang Susana, a prosecutor in Suwon, said her office would decide whether to appeal after analyzing the ruling.
Lee Man-hee, a leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during the press conference in Gapyeong, South Korea, Monday, March 2, 2020. In the hastily arranged news conference Lee, the 88-year-old leader of a religious sect which has the country’s largest cluster of infections, bowed down on the ground twice and apologized for causing the "unintentional" spread of the disease. (Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap via AP)
Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for Lee, who was arrested in August before his release on bail in November. They accused Lee and his church of violating the country’s infectious disease law by deliberately hiding some of the church’s membership and under-reporting its gatherings to avoid broader quarantines following the outbreak around the southeastern city of Daegu in February and March last year.
But the court said it was unclear whether the church’s failure to provide a full list of its membership was a crime. The collection of such basic information isn’t part of the specific boundaries of contact tracing spelled out by the law, the court said.
More than 5,000 of South Korea’s 70,212 coronavirus cases were linked to Lee’s church.