Former Oxy execs may be held

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Former Oxy execs may be held

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Left: Environmental activists and relatives of victims who suffered from toxic humidifier sterilizer hold signs urging a boycott of Oxy products at Lotte Mart in Jung District, central Seoul. Right: Shin Hyun-woo, the former CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, bows in apology at the Seoul Central District Court on Friday. [KIM SEONG-RYONG,NEWSIS]

The Seoul Central District Court on Friday questioned Shin Hyun-woo, the former CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, which is accused of selling toxic humidifier sterilizers from 2001 to 2011, to decide whether or not to issue the pre-trial detention warrant sought by prosecutors.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Wednesday asked the court to issue detention warrants for three former senior officials of the company, including Shin, who are suspected of abetting the sales of the product that is believed to have killed scores of customers.

The court also had two former senior employees of the company questioned.

The court’s review, which began at 10:30 a.m. Friday, was still underway as of press time. If granted, it would mark the first such legal action against company officials in the long-delayed case.

Stepping out of court at 1:15 p.m. Friday, the 68-year-old former businessman bowed his head in apology, saying, “I once again offer my deepest apology for the victims and their families for the suffering they have endured.”

Asked if he acknowledged the allegations against him, Shin only said he had consulted with his lawyer thoroughly and would respect the judge’s decision.

Shin, who led the company between 1991 and 2004, is accused of taking the lead in developing and selling the toxic product. He, however, is reported to have denied any knowledge of a toxic substance in the product and claimed he had merely followed directions from the parent company headquartered in London.

The three employees may also be charged with false advertising by claiming to the public the product was innocuous.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea was formerly a Korean company named Oxy, but it merged with Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser in 2001 and changed its name to Oxy Reckitt Benckiser. In 2014, the company again changed its name to Reckitt Benckiser Korea, which critics saw as an attempt to distance itself from the scandal. Koreans know its products by the Oxy brand.

The court also summoned the former CEO of local company Butterfly Effect, surnamed Oh, which made imitations of Reckitt Benckiser Korea’s humidifier sterilizers and sold the products from 2009 to 2011. It was deliberating on an warrant request for him as well on the same charges.

Prosecutors said Butterfly Effect’s products contained a substance that was four times more toxic than polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), the toxic chemical in the Oxy sterilizer. They also reported Friday the concentration of PHMG in Butterfly Effect products was 160 times higher than what would have been considered “innocuous” to humans.

Prosecutors have so far discovered that 4.5 million units of Oxy sterilizers were sold from 2001 to 2011, when local health authorities banned all sales of the products, citing health problems.

While the government has officially documented 221 people to have been harmfully affected by humidifier sterilizers produced by Oxy and other companies, 177 were linked to Oxy; of the 90 people who eventually died, 70 used Oxy. Among those who used products from Butterfly Effect, 27 suffered from negative aftereffects, 14 of whom died.

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

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