Coronavirus: Seoul files murder complaint against sect leader, Latest World News - The New Paper

Coronavirus: Seoul files murder complaint against sect leader

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Seoul authorities seek murder charges against founder for failing to cooperate in containing epidemic

The leader of a secretive South Korean sect linked to more than half the country's coronavirus cases apologised yesterday for the spread of the disease.

South Korea reported 599 new cases yesterday, taking its national tally to 4,335. There have been 26 deaths.

Shincheonji head Lee Man-hee's plea for forgiveness came after Seoul authorities filed a murder complaint on Sunday against him for failing to cooperate in containing the epidemic.

As officials track down and test more than 266,000 people associated with Shincheonji, the entity has been accused of submitting false lists of its members to the authorities.

The city government said it had filed a legal complaint to prosecutors against 12 leaders of the sect, accusing them of homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.

"They did not take any action to encourage its members to actively cooperate with health authorities to prevent further spread of the Covid-19," the city authorities said.

Seoul mayor Park Won-soon added on his Facebook page: "If they had actively taken early measures, we could have prevented the explosive rise of Covid-19 cases in Daegu and North Gyeongbuk province and the deaths of several people."

Under South Korean law, prosecutors can make their own decision on whether to act on complaints filed to them, and Yonhap news agency reported that Seoul's request had been assigned for investigation.

Mr Lee apologised yesterday, calling the epidemic a "great calamity".

Mr Lee, a self-proclaimed messiah who founded and heads the sect, said as part of his apology that it tried to prevent the spread of the virus among its members.

"We did our best, but were not able to stop the spread of the virus," Mr Lee told a news conference outside a church facility in Gapyeong, north-east of Seoul.

"(I'm) asking for forgiveness. I never thought this would happen, even in my dreams," he added, bowing low twice in a traditional sign of humility and regret.

Several protesters shouted slurs at the reclusive leader.

The sect is facing unprecedented scrutiny from the authorities and the public, with all of its followers and "trainees" being tested for the virus.

It issued a statement late on Sunday saying it was complying with government measures and reiterating calls for an end to "stigmatisation, hatred and slander" against its followers.

Separately, government officials warned of a "critical moment" this month in South Korea's battle with the largest virus outbreak outside China, urging people to minimise travel and avoid gatherings.

The Education Ministry said it will postpone the start of all schools' new semester to March 23. "Two weeks are essential for the coronavirus outbreak to ease," Minister Yoo Eun-hae told a briefing. - REUTERS, AFP