Judge in prison labor case offers to quit

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Judge in prison labor case offers to quit

The chief judge of the Gwangju District Court offered to resign on Saturday after facing an avalanche of criticism over his controversial ruling concerning a wealthy businessman.

In a 2010 ruling that escaped public scrutiny at the time, Judge Jang Byung-woo handed down an appellate ruling that allowed Huh Jae-ho, a businessman convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement, to write off a 25.4 billion won ($23.7 million) fine in return for a prison labor term of 49 days.

Huh fled the country after his sentencing and returned only recently when prosecutors began procedures to seize his assets here. As news of the lenient sentence - valuing Huh’s prison labor at about 500 million won per day - became widely known, a popular outcry began and resulted in the judge’s offer to step down.

In a statement, the judge said, “I take full responsibility and apologize to the public.” But he also voiced some bitterness over the public uproar.

”There was no comprehensive and analytical approach when [people] examined the ruling, and certain aspects were unfairly magnified. It led to broader criticism of the justice system, which is regrettable,” he said.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to accept his resignation this week.

On top of criticism of the ruling, the embattled judge came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he sold his house in 2007 to a subsidiary of Huh’s business empire. The property transactions led to allegations that the judge and Huh, the chairman of the now-defunct Daeju Group, had underhanded dealings.

Jang denied any improper connections.

“The property in question was acquired in an appropriate, legally sound way. I didn’t get any advantage out of this,” Jang said in the statement. “But I admit that I should have paid more attention to whom I had dealings with. I was only concerned that the selling price should be in line with the market price.”

The prosecution stopped the 72-year-old Huh from continuing his prison term last week and has been chasing assets held by the convicted businessman and his family to collect the outstanding fines.

The public backlash also prompted the top court to draw up stricter prison labor rules. Senior judges gathered on Friday to discuss ways to make the punitive labor procedures tougher.

Under Korean criminal law, terms at a prison labor house can be set anywhere between one day and three years. It is up to the individual court to estimate the worth of labor, considering the criminal’s age and other conditions. For common inmates, a day’s work is valued between 50,000 won and 100,000 won.

But during Huh’s appeal of his conviction, the court in Gwangju came up with a historic figure for a day’s labor, valuing Huh’s at 5,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate.

The senior judges said they would encourage other judges to set all wage rates in line with the normal rate. They also plan to increase the minimum length of prison labor so that the value of daily work cannot be overblown, as it was in Huh’s case.

The Gwangju-based Daeju Group was once the country’s 52nd-largest company by assets and had 15 subsidiaries. In the 2010 hearings, the court cited the company’s contributions to the local economies of Gwangju and South Jeolla as the reason for a lighter sentence than the trial judge handed down.

The conglomerate fell apart in 2010 when its construction subsidiary went bankrupt.

BY PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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