SEOUL, South Korea – The leader of a secret religious sect who was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for embezzling money from the church.
But Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted on a charge of conspiracy to hamper efforts by health officials to fight the virus. Mr. Lee’s prison term has been suspended for four years, meaning he will remain free unless he commits 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, briefly made South Korea the focus of the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak. to the world outside of China. A total of 5,213 cases have been found among church members and their contacts, according to government data.
Prosecutors arrested Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials hampered government efforts to tackle the outbreak by not fully disclosing the number of worshipers and their gathering places . Mr. Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or $ 5.1 million, of church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace” north of the capital Seoul.
He was also accused of using public facilities for religious activities without permission from local authorities.
Mr. Lee was released on bail last November. A judge at the Suwon District Court, south of Seoul, on Wednesday ruled that failure to provide a full list of church worshipers and facilities did not mean hampering government efforts to fight the disease. .
Mr Lee’s church welcomed the acquittal, but said he would appeal to a higher court to try to overturn his conviction on embezzlement and other charges.
During the trial, Mr. Lee denied all charges against him. In a previous statement, his church said Mr. Lee never intended to hinder the government’s efforts to control the outbreak and urged church members to cooperate with health authorities.
But prosecutors demanded that the court sentence him to five years in prison.
Mr. Lee’s church faced intense public criticism and he apologized to South Koreans in March. Parents who accused the church of attracting and brainwashing their children with its unorthodox teachings called Mr. Lee a “religious con artist.” The church dismissed the accusations as unfounded.
At the height of the outbreak spreading from the church, South Korea has reported as many as 900 new cases per day. But that outbreak was eclipsed by a new wave of infections that began to spread mainly in the Seoul metropolitan area in November. The country, which has a population of around 50 million, reported a record 1,240 new cases on Christmas Day.