Justice Minister rebuts probe critics

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Justice Minister rebuts probe critics

Under criticism for the handling of a bribery investigation of former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam defended his turf yesterday.

Standing before legislators at a question session at the National Assembly, Lee was grilled about prosecutors’ decision to open a second corruption probe the day before Han’s sentencing was scheduled to be announced last Friday.

Critics, mostly opposition lawmakers, said prosecutors resorted to the move because they knew the evidence against Han in the original case was weak.

Lee acknowledged that starting a second investigation while a defendant is on trial was problematic, but said in Han’s case they had good reason. “By definition, an additional probe usually refers to a situation in which prosecutors actively seek other charges because the previous charge couldn’t be proven,” Lee said, “In this case, prosecutors merely tried to find out more about what a person involved in our investigation had to say.”

Han was initially accused of receiving $50,000 from Kwak Young-wook, former head of Korea Express, in exchange for helping him find a job. But last Thursday, prosecutors raided a construction company’s office on the suspicion that Han received about 900 million won ($809,000) from the president of that company in an illegal political donation.

Han was acquitted in the first trial. The Seoul Central District Court ruled that prosecutors had no proof of the charges against her other than questionable testimony.

Lee also said he would not delay the second investigation for political reasons. Han is running for Seoul mayor in the June 2 local elections.

Kim Choon-jin of the opposition Democratic Party said Han’s acquittal proved the investigation had been politically motivated. Kim pressed Lee Kwi-nam to resign along with Prosecutor General Kim Joon-gyu.

Lee said he would “take responsibility if there’s something to take responsibility for” but noted that prosecutors are now preparing to appeal the acquittal and thus this wasn’t the appropriate time.

A senior member of the ruling Grand National Party also questioned prosecutors’ decision to open the new probe. In a radio interview, Hong Joon-pyo, a former prosecutor, said it was “not right” for prosecutors to start a new investigation before sentencing. “It is absolutely inappropriate for prosecutors to seek a charge just because the first charge was heading to acquittal,” he said. “And it’s a disgrace that prosecutors were so loose and slack in their investigation of a former prime minister. Each and every prosecutor should be ashamed.”

By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]
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