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Arrest warrant denial of DP’s Lee sparks controversy

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Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung is surrounded by DP lawmakers and supporters on Wednesday morning as he walks out of the Seoul Detention Center in Gyeonggi. [YONHAP]
Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung is surrounded by DP lawmakers and supporters on Wednesday morning as he walks out of the Seoul Detention Center in Gyeonggi. [YONHAP]

The court’s decision Wednesday to deny the prosecutors’ arrest warrant against Democratic Party (DP) leader Lee Jae-myung is stirring up controversy.

The prosecutors’ office strongly condemned the court’s decision, even questioning the judge on a possible political motive behind his ruling, while the DP, which claimed victory, not only demanded an apology from the Yoon Suk Yeol government but also targeted its own party lawmakers that voted in favor of the arrest warrant motion last week.

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“There seems to be a huge gap in perspective between the prosecutors and the court on the arrest warrant decision and the reason behind it,” Prosecutor General Lee Won-seok said Wednesday. “Although the court had acknowledged the proof of crime and the justification, it seems as though the focus [of the court] was on ensuring [Lee’s] rights as the head of a political party.”

The prosecutor general stressed that the investigation is apolitical as the investigation started under the previous administration, which had a DP foundation.

“The judiciary shouldn’t be misunderstood as a political issue,” Lee said. “As we have done so far, we will continue to be dedicated in the judicial process to following the evidence and legal principals.”

He added that the prosecutors’ office will work in reinforcing the investigation so that the people involved will be punished.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon also made a statement with a similar tone.

He said that just because a politician committed a crime, it doesn’t mean that the judiciary becomes political.

“The prosecution will unwaveringly conduct the investigation,” Han said.

The justice minister, however, stressed that the court denying an arrest warrant doesn’t mean that the crimes are cleared.

“An arrest warrant is just one of the processes of a criminal investigation,” Han said.

He also argued against the DP’s claim that the prosecution is pushing excessively and stretching its investigation to frame its leader as a criminal.

“As I had explained [last week at the National Assembly], 21 people have been arrested in related investigations,” Han said. “A criminal investigation is done to reveal the truth and hold the people who are responsible accountable.”

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon answers questions in front of the Justice Ministry on Wednesday. [YONHAP]
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon answers questions in front of the Justice Ministry on Wednesday. [YONHAP]

However, according to a report by the JoongAng Ilbo, some of the investigators have questioned the judge’s decision.

“We express regret on the results,” a prosecutor, who requested anonymity, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It is hard to accept the [court’s] decision.”

“The court said it based its decision on the unlikeness of an incumbent political party leader destroying evidence, as he consistently remains in the public’s view and is subject to criticism,” the prosecutor said. “But it is difficult to accept [such an argument] in the judicial perspective.”

“Tampering with evidence had actually happened by instructing [witnesses to commit] perjury [in court],” the prosecutor said. “We also found in our investigation an attempt to coerce a public servant in the same way.”

The prosecutor said that the DP leader Lee Jae-myung, in order to get acquitted in past cases, had used his power to force witnesses to make false statements to fit a false narrative that he had created.

“Considering the severity of the case, an arrest warrant should have been issued,” the official added.

The prosecutor stressed that the court had acknowledged Lee coercing a witness to make false testimonies during a trial in 2018, of which the prosecution has a recorded phone conversation, and even the judge had expressed suspicion of Lee’s conduct regarding a development scandal in Baekhyeon-dong.

“One can’t but wonder if political consideration was made in a judiciary decision to state that there is no possibility of destroying or tampering with evidence just because the person is the leader of a political party,” the prosecutor said.

The People Power Party (PPP) also strongly expressed its disappointment regarding the court’s decision.

“Not only does the court’s decision to deny the arrest warrant goes against the public’s perception of the justice system, the justification for making such a decision is unreasonable,” Yun Jae-ok, the PPP floor leader, said. “The reason doesn’t make sense; it’s as if they were compelled to come up with it after the decision to deny the arrest warrant was already made.”

“The judge had stated that there were significant suspicions [regarding the case] and yet, unexpectedly, ruled that it was necessary to protect the rights of the suspect to defend, especially given the absence of direct evidence,” Yun said.

“The whole world knows that Lee, in contrast to the court’s reasoning, leveraged his role as the leader of the DP party to hinder justice, involving all of its lawmakers and supporters in the process,” Yun said. “It seems the court is the only one unaware of this.”

DP Rep. Jung Chang-rae at the Seoul Detention Center in Gyeonggi on Wednesday. [NEWS1]
DP Rep. Jung Chang-rae at the Seoul Detention Center in Gyeonggi on Wednesday. [NEWS1]

The DP welcomed the court’s decision and demanded that the Yoon government not only apologize for trying to politically persecute an opposition leader but also remove Justice Minister Han.

DP Rep. Jung Chang-rae said that the court’s decision clearly revealed the violent nature of the Yoon government, which he compared to a prosecutor-led dictatorship.

“President Yoon and Justice Minister Han should apologize to the public,” the DP lawmaker said. “And President Yoon should immediately remove Minister Han.”

“If Han has even the slightest conscience, he should take full responsibility and resign,” Jung said.

The newly named floor leader of the DP, Hong Ihk-pyo, argued that the Yoon government’s attempt to wipe out Yoon’s political rival and to oppress the opposing party through unbridled investigations driven by political prosecutors have come to a stop because of the court.

“We demand that the government stop trying to neutralize its political opponent and restore politics that respect the legislators and the opposition party,” Hong said.

However, the DP leadership, which is now controlled by pro-Lee factions including the newly named floor leader, has made clear its intention to smoke out and persecute party members that voted against Lee.

“We demand that those who have bruised the party and its supporters through self-hurting actions [of voting in favor of the arrest motion] reflect hard on their actions and apologize,” Jung said. “They will undoubtedly have to pay their dues.”

On Wednesday, the Seoul Central District Court Judge Yoo Chang-hoon denied the arrest warrant, which was delivered around 3 a.m.

The DP Chair Lee was released from the Seoul Detention Center, where he was held following the hearing.

Lee after his release thanked the judiciary for “making a wise decision,” while demanding that the government stop trying to end political rivalry and focus more on policies that would benefit the public.

Lee’s arrest warrant review by the court followed the motion being passed by the National Assembly on Sept. 21.

Under the law, the prosecution needs the approval of a majority on the National Assembly to seek an arrest warrant of a sitting lawmaker when the parliamentary session is opened.

There were 295 lawmakers that voted on Thursday, so it only needed 148 lawmakers to vote in favor for the motion to pass. The results showed that 149 voted in favor, so roughly 30 lawmakers from the DP had to have voted against Lee.

After the motion was passed, there have been growing conflicts within the DP especially with pro-Lee lawmakers trying to smoke out and reprimand other DP lawmakers that may have cast their vote against the party leader.

Tensions are especially high considering that Lee has the right as the party’s leader to pick candidates that will run for the legislative election in April next year.

BY LEE HO-JEONG, MICHAEL LEE [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]