Prosecutors fret warrant rejections

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Prosecutors fret warrant rejections

The prosecution is in a panic after its requests for pretrial detention warrants of high-profile suspects were rejected by local courts.

Over the past week, the prosecutors faced five rejections by local courts on four major cases. “As opposed to ordinary criminal investigations, detaining a suspect in a high-profile case is crucial,” said a senior official of the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office. “If the current mood continues, I am not sure how we can proceed with investigations into the People’s Party and Lotte Group.”

The first in a string of warrant rejections came on Saturday. The Seoul Western District Court turned down the prosecutors’ requests for warrants to detain Reps. Park Sun-sook and Kim Soo-min of the People’s Party. There is no fear of evidence destruction or flight, the court said. It added that the pretrial detentions will unreasonably infringe upon the two lawmakers’ rights to defend themselves.

The rejection was particularly hurtful to the prosecution because it was the prosecutors’ second attempt to question the lawmakers under detention. Their first warrant requests were denied on July 12.

After the initial rejection, the Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office updated their petitions and the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office added its support by saying some 100 election law violation suspects were already detained over the April general election and the two lawmakers are facing the gravest charges.

The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors Office also faced an obstacle in its investigation into People’s Party Rep. Park Joon-yung. The veteran politician was accused of receiving a large amount of money in return for the promise of a proportional representative nomination for a party he was preparing to launch. This was the prosecutors’ second attempt to detain Park. The first warrant request was denied in May and the prosecution made the second request after two months of an additional probe.

“So far, 101 election law violation suspects are being questioned under detention, but the three people with the heaviest charges became exceptions,” an investigator said. “We are not sure if we should make a third attempt.”

A senior prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office complained that the judiciary is making a political decision because the prosecution’s authority was recently challenged by the continuing corruption scandal involving a top prosecutor. Prosecutors’ attempts to detain suspects during investigations have long been a source of controversy in Korea.

While they argue that they must detain suspects because perjury is rampant, legal experts and rights advocates said pretrial detention is often abused to expedite investigations, as prosecutors often rely on confessions to secure guilty verdicts. They also showed concerns that detention is often used as a form of punishment.

The prosecutors investigating alleged corruptions and irregularities at Lotte Group and Volkswagen also faced similar obstacles in their investigation strategies.

A special investigation team of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office sought a pretrial detention warrant against an accounting firm head on charges of receiving money from Lotte Chemical in return for using his influence to end a tax probe into the firm, but the request was denied Tuesday.

“In order to reach [the Lotte owner family], obtaining a meaningful statement from the suspect was the key,” an investigator said. “We were concerned about the slow progress of the probe, and the rejection was a fatal blow.”

Another team’s request to detain the former CEO of the Korean branch of Audi Volkswagen, Park Dong-hoon, was also rejected on the same day. The prosecutors planned to question him under detention about the rigged diesel-emission test results during his eight-year tenure.

In the legal community, opinions about pretrial detentions are split.

A prosecutor-turned-lawyer said prosecutors should be allowed to question suspects properly and effectively. “A pretrial detention warrant hearing is not an actual trial to decide whether the suspect is guilty or not,” he said, “but that distinction has become ambiguous these days.”

Another lawyer, however, said the prosecution must change its approach. “Prosecutors should change their perspective that an investigation is successful only when the suspects are detained,” he said.

Under Korea’s criminal laws, a pre-trial detention warrant can be issued by a local court at the request of prosecutors. The warrant allows a suspect to be held by police or prosecutors for up to 10 days for questioning. Prosecutors have the option to seek a 10-day extension of pre-trial custody before a suspect has to be charged.

The criminal litigation law also says that someone accused of a crime can be detained to prevent flight or destruction of evidence.

BY HYUN IL-HOON, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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