Bitter blowback rattles reps after immunity vote

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Bitter blowback rattles reps after immunity vote

The Saenuri Party went into full apologetic mode yesterday to contain the fallout from the parliament’s refusal Wednesday to strip one of its lawmakers of his immunity from arrest on graft charges, saying it “humbly accepts the criticism.”

And prosecutors yesterday decided not to pursue arrest warrants for two opposition lawmakers accused of taking bribes, a signal of the prosecution’s fading ambitions to go after allegedly corrupt lawmakers.

In a vote by 223 lawmakers Wednesday, only 73 supported allowing prosecutors to take accused Saenuri lawmaker Song Kwang-ho into custody, while 118 moved to let him keep his immunity. Eight lawmakers abstained, and 24 votes were not counted.

By law, lawmakers are immune from arrest during a parliamentary session unless there is legislative consent.

Song is accused of pocketing 65 million won ($63,765) in bribes from private railroad companies in 2012 in exchange for favors while he worked under the parliamentary committee for land, transport and maritime affairs.

Sensing the firestorm the warrant rejection has touched off, Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung said during a Saenuri supreme council meeting yesterday at the National Assembly: “I am deeply sorry about the rejection vote [on Wednesday] that caused the rising public criticism. The party will humbly accept the criticism.”

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said yesterday it will not ask the Assembly to strip the immunity for Shin Geh-ryoon and Shin Hak-yong, lawmakers of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but instead will indict them without detention on charges of taking bribes in return for giving business favors to a vocational school.

As a result of the prosecution’s decision, the two will be charged and tried but not detained.

Shin Geh-ryoon, the four-term lawmaker, is suspected by prosecutors of receiving more than 50 million won from Kim Min-seong, who runs the Seoul Arts College, a vocational school for aspiring entertainers, in return for helping pass legislation that enabled the school to drop the term “vocational” from its official name.

Shin Hak-yong is accused of having received 15 million won from Kim Min-seong and another 33.9 million won from the Korea Kindergarten Association for separate legislative favors.

The vote by the Assembly on Wednesday provoked an immediate public backlash at the spectacle of lawmakers protecting their own from prosecution.

The fact that not a single bill has been passed since May 2 because of political gridlock over a special law to investigate the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April has fueled public condemnation of the political establishment, which was heightened by the Assembly’s decision to allow Song, 72, avoid time behind bars.

Thanks to the rejection, the four-term lawmaker will be questioned by prosecutors without being detained. But he can be indicted and tried.

The prosecution will indict two other Saenuri lawmakers, Park Sang-eun and Cho Hyun-yong, and one NPAD lawmaker, Kim Jae-yun, today on bribery charges and violation of political funds law.

All three were detained between sessions of the Assembly when their immunity wasn’t in effect.

While the prosecution is still pursuing a wide investigation into graft by lawmakers across party lines, its momentum was weakened following the parliamentary vote on Wednesday. Two denials by a court to grant the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office pre-trial arrest warrants for two Shins of the NPAD last month also dented the investigation’s momentum.

The apology by Saenuri Chairman Kim yesterday was an attempt to minimize the damage caused by Wednesday’s vote. Since the vote, the party has repeatedly emphasized that it wasn’t the party’s official stance to reject the arrest motion and that it let its lawmakers cast their votes based on their individual opinions.

The NPAD continued its drumbeat of criticism against its rival, claiming the Saenuri turned the Assembly session into a so-called bullet-proof session to protect its own.

“The Saenuri repeatedly pledged there would be no bullet-proof session and it would adhere to principals and laws. But it was proved through the vote that the Saenuri’s top priority was to protect its lawmaker,” said Rep. Yoo Eun-hye, spokeswoman of the NPAD.

But the opposition was not spared criticism because over 20 opposition lawmakers cast votes to prevent the arrest Wednesday.

Even if it’s assumed that all 122 Saenuri lawmakers who cast votes rejected the motion, that still leaves 28 nay votes that must have come from the NPAD and the minority Justice Party.

Rep. Chun Soon-ok of the NPAD said there was a sense among opposition lawmakers that the prosecutors’ investigation into Rep. Song and other lawmakers accused of corruption was politically motivated.

“Some [from the NPAD] thought the prosecution was over the top in its investigation and question its real motive,” she said. “Also opposition lawmakers assume that Song will not flee or attempt to destroy evidence, which is why they said no to the arrest.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]












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