South Korean court acquits church leader Lee Man-hee on charge of obstructing virus efforts

People watch a TV broadcast of a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, in Seoul, South Korea.

A South Korean court acquitted on Wednesday the leader of a Christian sect charged with obstructing efforts to stamp out one of the world’s first big surges of novel coronavirus infections, the Yonhap news agency said.

Lee Man-hee, a self-proclaimed messiah who founded and heads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, had been accused of violating the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act by providing incomplete lists of church members requested by health authorities to trace suspected coronavirus infections.

The church was at the centre of the first major COVID-19 epidemic outside China early last year, with nearly 4,200 of its 310,000 followers infected after attending a service in the city of Daegu.

Authorities at the time complained that Lee was not fully cooperating when it came to providing the names of everyone who might have attended services at the church.

Prosecutors had sought a five-year jail term and 3 million won (an equivalent of $2,700) in fines for Lee.

Lee denied any wrongdoing. He apologised that some church members had caught the virus.

The Suwon District Court acquitted him of the charges, saying lists of church members did not constitute key elements of epidemiological surveys as defined in the law, Yonhap said.

The court, however, found Lee guilty of embezzling 5.6 billion won (an equivalent of $5.11 million) of church funds to build a residence, and using government facilities for religious services without approval, handing him a four-year suspended prison sentence.

The church welcomed Lee’s acquittal of the COVID-19 accusations but expressed “deep regret” that he had been found guilty of the other charges.

It said it would appeal to prove his innocence.

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