Shincheonji leader acquitted of disease control act violations
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The leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, who was indicted for underreporting the number of its followers and church locations to the government during the first Covid-19 wave in Korea, was acquitted Friday.
The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a lower court’s ruling acquitting Lee Man-hee, the 91-year-old founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, who was indicted for violating the country’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act.
Investigations began on Lee after the number of Covid-19 cases exploded in February 2020 in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, and the outbreak was linked to Shincheonji followers.
Korea became the subject of international headlines after its number of infections soared from just 30 in mid-February to over 8,000 one month later. The inflection point was Feb. 18, when the first patient from the Shincheonji Church in Daegu tested positive after attending large church gatherings, which proved to be the cause of the outbreak.
To determine just how many people were at risk while conducting contract tracing amid the outbreak, local governments in February sought complete membership records and a list if facilities from the church.
The church belatedly complied by submitting relevant documents, but prosecutors believe Lee and other church leaders deliberately underreported the number.
The key issue of Lee’s trial was whether the list of church members was valid as epidemiological investigation data. The Supreme Court concluded that the requests by the health officials for Lee to submit lists of members and facility reports could not be regarded as epidemiological data.
Under the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, health authorities can check a patient's personal information, the date and place of infection, and the cause and route of transmission.
But the court judged that the requests made could not be viewed as part of an epidemiological investigation in that the authorities demanded a list of the all Shincheonji members regardless of whether they were infected or not.
Separately, the church leader was accused of having embezzled around 5.6 billion won ($4.7 million) meant for construction of a new training center for the church, and holding unauthorized religious events at local government facilities between 2015 and 2019.
Friday’s court decision upheld a three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years, for the embezzlement and the obstruction of business.
The church is believed to have around 300,000 adherents, but analysts say many have likely departed after the group gained notoriety owing to its role in the coronavirus outbreak.
BY SEO JI-EUN, LIM JEONG-WON [email@example.com]
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