Request for arrest warrant denied for Cho’s brotherA local court on Wednesday dismissed a warrant request to arrest Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s younger brother, dealing a blow to state prosecutors’ investigation into criminal allegations surrounding the embattled minister and his family.
Judge Myeong Jae-kwon, who presided over the ruling by the Seoul Central District Court, decided pretrial detention of Cho’s brother was unnecessary given that the misappropriation allegations he faces are “open to doubt,” enough evidence collection has already taken place with a raid on his home and that the younger Cho has largely accepted parts of the commercial bribery allegations against him. The suspect’s ill health was also cited as a reason for the dismissal.
After grilling him on three separate occasions over the past few weeks, prosecutors last Friday sought court approval for a warrant for Cho’s brother’s arrest for allegedly receiving around two hundred million won ($166,868) in bribes in exchange for offering jobs to teachers at the Ungdong School, a middle school operated by the Cho family.
In addition, he also faces an accusation that he and his ex-wife, while running a construction firm, received a 1.6 billion won contract from the Ungdong School in 1996 but did not follow through on the job. The pair in 2006 sued the foundation for 5.1 billion won, which was supposed to include interest accrued on the unpaid bill, but prosecutors suspect the suit may have been deliberately arranged by family members as a way to embezzle the school foundation’s funds.
The 53-year-old younger Cho was supposed to appear at a court in Seoul on Tuesday to attend his warrant hearing and offer self-defense oral testimony, but he chose not to show up, citing physical pain after a recent surgery on his lower spine.
The state prosecution service reacted with sharp disapproval with the court’s decision to deny the arrest warrant, with one member of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office claiming it was difficult to understand the decision given the seriousness of the allegations, the clarification of the proof they presented and the fact that two supposed accomplices have already been placed under detention for bribery allegations.
“We plan to consider filing another arrest warrant,” the prosecutor said. Prosecutors also took issue with the fact that the court defied precedence by dismissing the warrant even after Cho chose not to testify, when almost all suspects who have made similar decisions in the past were placed under arrest.
Based on Judge Myeong’s statement, the court appears to have accepted the allegation that Cho received bribes with regards to the hiring allegations at Ungdong School, but that the allegations surrounding the construction lawsuit remain unclear.
The Ungdong School Foundation was acquired in 1985 by Cho’s father, who made a fortune in construction, and has since been run by the family. After heavy media scrutiny of his family’s wealth following his nomination as justice minister, Cho on Aug. 23 promised that his mother, who ran the school foundation since his father died, would step down as chairperson. He also pledged it would be donated to the state or a public foundation.
By bringing Cho’s brother into custody, prosecutors had hoped to link his corruption allegations to the minister’s wife Chung Kyung-sim, who served on the school board throughout the period of the lawsuit. The court’s dismissal of the warrant has reined in such plans, and prosecutors may now focus their attention on other allegations surrounding the family’s wealth building and the academic integrity of her children.
The court decision also served to reinforce growing public criticism that the prosecutorial probe into Cho has been excessive and disproportional, in line with accusations that prosecutors are attempting to use the investigation to target Cho, and by consequence, derail the Moon Jae-in administration’s judicial reform drive.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]