SEOUL, South Korea – The leader of a secret religious sect that was at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for charges including embezzling church money.
But Lee Manhee, 89, founder of Jesus’ Shinchonji Church, was acquitted of conspiracy to thwart efforts by health workers to fight the virus.
Mr Lee’s prison sentence was suspended for four years, meaning he would remain free unless he committed a crime within that time.
The rapid spread of the virus among church worshipers in Daegu, a southeastern city, in February and early March last year made South Korea the site of the world̵7;s largest coronavirus outbreak. Outside of China Government data found a total of 5,213 patients out of more than 68,000 among church members and their contacts.
Prosecutors arrested Mr Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials thwarted government efforts to fight the epidemic without disclosing the full number of worshipers and their assembly sites. Mr Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or $ 5.1 million, of church money to build. The luxurious “Peace Palace” is located in the northern capital of Seoul and holds unauthorized religious events at public venues. Prosecutors asked for five years in prison.
Mr Lee’s church, which he said has 245,000 followers in South Korea and abroad, has faced severe criticism at home and he apologized to South Koreans in March over the number of cases involved. But the church dismissed claims that the action contributed to the spread of the virus, as well as allegations from parents that Mr Lee was a “religious fraud” that the church had tricked and brainwashed. Children with heretic teachings
At the peak of the outbreak that spread by churches South Korea, as many as 900 new cases were reported daily, but the outbreak was overshadowed by a new wave of infections beginning to spread mainly through the Seoul metropolitan area. November The country, with a population of about 50 million, had 1,240 new cases reported on Christmas Day.
Mr Lee, who was released on bail in November, denied all allegations against him during the trial. In an earlier statement, his church said Mr Lee had never intended to block government efforts to contain the epidemic and urged church members to cooperate with health authorities.
On Wednesday, a judge at the Suwon District Court in southern Seoul ruled that failure to provide all worshipers and church facilities did not preclude custody efforts. Government disease
Mr. Lee’s church rejoices with being acquitted. But said he would appeal the conviction of embezzlement and other charges.