South Korean authorities on Saturday arrested Lee Man-hee, the powerful leader of a secretive Christian sect at the center of the country's largest outbreak of coronavirus infections. Lee was arrested on charges of hiding sensitive information from contact-tracers and obstructing the government's efforts to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
The 89-year-old has been accused of several offences including conspiring with other sect leaders to conceal information about the coronavirus outbreak among thousands of his followers that further worsened the virus spread in the country. Lee had earlier also said that the coronavirus was a conspiracy aimed at halting the growth of the sect.
A Different Kind of Criminal
A local court in Suwon, south of Seoul, issued an arrest warrant for Lee, the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is linked to more than 5,200 coronavirus infections. This accounts for nearly 36 percent of the total coronavirus cases in South Korea. Following the warrant, Lee was taken into custody by the police.
Lee, who has more than 2,000,000 followers, had allegedly submitted false documents to health authorities about the number of participants at the sect's gatherings and the place of the gatherings. The gatherings took place in February when the sect became the hotspot of the coronavirus spread in the first phase of the outbreak in South Korea. Authorities believe that had Man-hee cooperated with them at that time, the virus spread could have been prevented at an early stage and the situation could have been different.
Multiple Accounts of Crime
Lee's arrest comes after several rounds of questioning by the authorities. Prosecutors questioned him twice, on July 17 and 23, before filing for his arrest earlier this week. However, he didn't cooperate on either of the occasions. In fact, the sect is still defending their leader. The sect said in a statement that Man-hee's intention was not to hide vital information from the government buy his actions were out of concern of the personal information of his followers.
"There is some room for contention about the suspect's alleged crimes, but some charges have been ascertained. Moreover, there have been circumstances indicating systematic attempts to destroy evidence. Considering his status, it cannot be ruled out that there will be similar attempts in the future," said Judge Lee Myeong-chul. The judge also mentioned that Lee has several age-related ailments but is not deemed unfit for trial and imprisonment.
Lee had earlier said that the coronavirus was "devil's deed" and is an attempt to stop the sect's growth. That said, his crimes don't end here. He is also accused of embezzling around $4.68 million (5.6 billion won) from church funds and holding unauthorized religious events from between 2015 and 2019.