A South Korean court has acquitted a religious sect leader of allegations that he deliberately interrupted the government’s antivirus response early last year after thousands of his worshipers became infected with coronavirus.
However, Suwon District Court on Wednesday found 89-year-old Lee Man-hee guilty of separate charges of embezzling more than $ 5 million in church funds and organizing unauthorized services in public spaces. His three-year prison sentence will be suspended for four years.
Lee’s Church, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, issued a statement denying his wrongdoing and confirming plans to appeal. Suwon’s prosecutor Kang Susana said her office would decide whether to appeal after analyzing the verdict.
Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison sentence 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 underreporting its collections 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 complete list of its memberships was a crime. The collection of such basic information is not part of the specific limits for tracking contacts described in the law, the court said.
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More than 5,000 of South Korea’s 70,212 cases of coronavirus were linked to Lee’s church.