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World News

South Korean church sect leader acquitted of breaking Covid control laws

by Will Maule

A South Korean religious leader who was blamed for perpetuating the spread of Covid-19 infections early on in the pandemic has been found not guilty of breaking virus control laws. 

Lee Man-hee, 89, who leads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was thrust into the media spotlight last February after health officials connected his congregation to a massive outbreak in Covid-19. At one point, the church was linked to more than 35 per cent of the country's total cases. 

In August, the controversial leader was arrested and accused of withholding information about the group's members from government contact tracers. In addition, he was charged with embezzlement and holding unapproved religious events. Lee insisted that while he was concerned for the privacy of his members, he never hid information from the authorities. 

On Wednesday, he was found not guilty of violating the country's infectious disease act.

"We cannot punish someone on charges of obstructing antivirus efforts for leaving out certain data, when (the request) had more to do with data collection than an actual epidemiological survey," said Judge Kim Mi-kyung in the ruling.

Despite being acquitted of the charges relating to the act, Lee was found guilty of embezzling 5.6bn won and obstruction of public affairs, and was handed a three-year suspended sentence. The court specified that Lee would undergo a four-year probation period, meaning that he will stay out of prison on the condition that he does not re-offend during this time. 

Shincheonji Church said it welcomed the verdict, but added that it will be appealing against the embezzlement decision. 

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus was founded in 1984 and is widely considered to be a cult due to Lee's belief that he is a saviour figure, or "the promised pastor", who will take 144,000 of his followers to heaven with him after Christ's Second Coming. 

The church boasts around 230,000 members, with smaller gatherings in various countries across the globe.

As infections linked to the church began to skyrocket last year, Lee made an emotional public apology.

"Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected," he said at the time. "We put our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all."

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