A South Korean court has acquitted a religious sect leader accused of deliberately disrupting the government's anti-virus response early last year after thousands of his worshippers were infected with the coronavirus.
The Suwon District Court did, however, find 89-year-old Lee Man-hee guilty of separate charges that he embezzled more than $5 million in church funds. He was also charged with organising unauthorised religious services in public spaces. His three-year prison term will be suspended for four years, which means that he will remain a free man unless he commits a crime within that time.
Lee's church, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, issued a statement denying wrongdoing and confirming plans to appeal. Kang Susana, a prosecutor in Suwon, said her office would decide whether to appeal after analysing the ruling.
Lee Man-hee founded the group in 1984, at a time when there was a strongly anti-communist atmosphere in South Korea, according to Noh Junsung, a South Korean representative of the World Council of Churches. He adds that the Shincheonji group currently represents 14-15 percent of South Korea's Christian devotees, a total of some 300,000 adherents.
According to a 2015 study by Kim Young Sam, the group failed in its efforts to register as a non-profit religious organisation, because of their "negative influence on society". They were accused of "splitting families" and later of forming a "Christian State" within South Korea along the lines of the "Islamic State" in the Middle East.
Infectious disease law
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 last year.
Some of the church members had travelled to Wuhan, in China, the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in February and March last year, and are thought to have spread the disease in South Korea upon their return there.
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 have been linked to Lee's church.