Six judges suspended in power abuse case

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Six judges suspended in power abuse case

Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su suspended judicial duties for six sitting judges indicted for allegedly taking part in a massive power abuse scandal that continues to hound the judiciary.

The six judges all sit on district and high courts in Seoul and Gyeonggi, and are among 66 sitting members of the judiciary accused last Tuesday for involvement in the scandal that landed former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae in prison in January.

From this Friday to Aug. 31, the judges are barred from any court duties and have been assigned to legal research duties in what amounts to punishment.

They will be performing these tasks at the Judicial Research and Training Institute in Goyang, Gyeonggi, rather than at the judiciary’s headquarters in southern Seoul, to minimize contact with other judges.

“This measure was undertaken under the consideration that allowing the judges who will be subject to high profile trials themselves would have a negative effect on the people’s faith in the judiciary and legal trials,” a Supreme Court spokesman said.

Two other sitting judges who were indicted were not included because they were suspended from duties last year.

Perhaps the most prominent of the six judges in question is Sung Chang-ho of the Seoul Eastern District Court, best known for sentencing South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo in January to two years in prison for his role in an online opinion rigging scheme ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

According to the indictment of one of Yang’s deputies, National Court Administration deputy head Lim Jong-hun, who is a key witness in the investigation into the scandal, Sung allegedly leaked official secrets pertaining to multiple judicial bribery trials at least 10 times from May to September, 2016, relaying the information to a senior judge at the Seoul Central District Court - Shin Kwang-ryeol, who is also among the six.

One of those trials was that of former Nature Republic CEO Jeong Un-ho, a case that is widely cited as having opened the floodgates to a series of scandals that ultimately culminated with former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and removal in 2017.

While Jeong had initially been indicted on a gambling charge, his case took an unexpected turn when he was convicted and demanded that his lawyer return a large sum he had given her to get him out on bail. An investigation into the attorney revealed that she had used her position as a former judge to lobby courts to lighten Jeong’s sentence, and that such a practice was widespread among former and current judicial officials at the time, particularly among those with close ties to the Lee Myung-bak and Park administrations.

It was widely suspected by analysts during the investigation in 2016 - and now corroborated - that certain elements in the judiciary were trying to contain the probe to prevent it from exposing a larger ring of corruption in the branch, since the arrest warrants of key witnesses were constantly being denied by the courts.

The writ for the judges issued on Tuesday said that Shin - a criminal court head judge - even took part in an internal meeting with Sung about being strict about issuing warrants, despite the fact regulations bar criminal court judges from intervening in warrant hearings.

Shin also gained notoriety among liberals in 2017 when he ordered the release of former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, who had been jailed for his part in organizing online opinion rigging campaign by the military and spy agency to get Park elected as president in 2012.

The ramifications of these judicial indictments are unlikely to stop at the Supreme Court’s internal measures. Preparations are underway in the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to begin an impeachment process for the judges in question as part of a major judicial reform drive.

This has been strongly resisted, however, by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which labeled the indictments last week as the DP’s revenge for Kim Kyoung-soo’s conviction at the hands of Sung.

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