Seoul central prosecution's demand for more independence rejected

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Seoul central prosecution's demand for more independence rejected

In this file photo, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, left, and Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office Chief Lee Sung-yoon, right, attend a meeting on Feb. 10, 2020 at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office.  [YONHAP]

In this file photo, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, left, and Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office Chief Lee Sung-yoon, right, attend a meeting on Feb. 10, 2020 at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office. [YONHAP]

 
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has demanded more independence in an ongoing criminal investigation into a senior prosecutor, but the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office rejected the request.
 
The district prosecutors' office said Tuesday that it wanted the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to scrap its plan to operate an advisory panel to examine the validity of its probe. Seoul district prosecutors are investigating allegations that Lee Dong-jae, a reporter from Channel A, had conspired with Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor and a close ally of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, to blackmail a businessman for incriminating information on Rhyu Si-min, a liberal pundit with close ties to the Moon Jae-in administration.
 
Han, who previously served as the head of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office's anti-corruption department, is also undergoing a separate internal investigation by the Justice Ministry. Han has consistently denied his involvement.
 
In June, Lee filed a petition to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to form an advisory panel to review his case, claiming that the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office’s probe was unfair and unlawful. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office granted the petition.
 
The prosecutor general has the power to form an advisory panel to review the validity of an investigation. The panel is composed of only legal experts including prosecutors, judges, lawyers and criminal law professors. It is different from the Investigation Review Committee of outside experts that recently reviewed the validity of a probe into Samsung leader Lee Jae-yong and concluded that the prosecution should not indict Lee.  
 
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office told the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office that the confidentiality of its investigation will be compromised if an advisory panel looks into the case at the current stage.  
 
The Seoul prosecution also relayed to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office that it wants more independence — equivalent to that of a special prosecutor, because Han, a high-ranking prosecutor, is a suspect of the investigation.
 
The special prosecutor system is an extraordinary protocol for a criminal investigation in which a prosecutor is a suspect. When the prosecutor general appoints a special prosecutor, he or she is exempt from making interim reports to their bosses. The special prosecutor reports only the final outcome of the probe to the prosecutor general. 
 
The system was introduced in 2010 and has been used four times. The last case was in 2016, when a special prosecutor probed and indicted senior prosecutor Jin Kyung-joon on charges of receiving massive bribes from Nexon co-founder Kim Jung-ju.  
 
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office flatly rejected the Seoul prosecution’s request for more independence. The rejection was announced just two hours and 30 minutes after the Seoul prosecution told reporters on Tuesday about its demands.  
 
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said it will convene an advisory panel on Friday as scheduled.
 
“If the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is confident [it is able] to prove the suspect’s charges beyond a reasonable doubt, it should attend the advisory panel meeting and argue its case,” the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said.  
 
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office also rejected the demand that the team is guaranteed independence equal to a special prosecutor. It said all investigations come with the possibility of human rights violations, and that it is necessary for a higher office to command and control district prosecutors’ probes.  
 
Speculation has grown that the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, headed by Lee Sung-yoon, was defying Prosecutor General Yoon. Lee was named the chief of the district office by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae in January.  
 
Lee, who formerly led the prosecution bureau of the Ministry of Justice, is known as Choo’s ally. Ever since he came on board, Lee vowed to reform the prosecution.  
 
“The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office was moving forward with the investigation, and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office never stopped them,” a former prosecutor told the JoongAng Ilbo. “But the team demanded that they are given independence equivalent to a special prosecutor. This means that they are just rebelling against the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office [and the prosecutor general].”  
 
BY SER MYO-JA, NA UN-CHAE   [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]  
 
 

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