South Korean authorities arrested the founder of a secret Christian sect at the center of the country’s largest coronavirus cluster for obstructing government efforts to contain the outbreak in February and March.
Lee Man-hee is the powerful head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is linked to more than 5,200 coronavirus infections, or 36% of the total cases in South Korea.
The 89-year-old man was taken into custody on Saturday after a Suwon District Court issued an arrest warrant on the grounds that prosecutors feared he might tamper with the evidence.
Prosecutors allege Lee conspired with other cult leaders to withhold information from authorities, including their meeting locations and the number of participants at their gatherings as authorities attempted to trace the routes of infection in February .
Lee is also believed to have embezzled about 5.6 billion won ($ 4.7 million) from Church funds, including about five billion won that he allegedly used to build a retreat, reported the Yonhap News Agency.
He previously described the new coronavirus as “the act of the devil” to stop the cult’s growth. The church currently has over 200,000 faithful.
Judge Lee Myeong-chul said “there have been circumstances indicating systematic attempts to destroy evidence” and given Lee’s status, “it cannot be ruled out that there are attempts similar to the ‘to come up “.
Lee and his church strongly denied the charges, saying they were cooperating with health authorities.
In a statement, the church said Lee was concerned about government requests for members’ personal information, but never tried to hide anything.
“The issuance of an arrest warrant by the court does not mean a verdict of guilty. All possible efforts will be made to uncover the truth in future trials, ”he added.
Seven other group officials were charged on July 28 for violating infectious disease control and obstruction of justice law, according to Yonhap.
Three of them were arrested on July 8.
Lee apologized in March for the spread of the disease, after the cult’s branch in the southern city of Daegu became South Korea’s largest cluster.
Health officials have used an aggressive testing and quarantine program to contain the outbreak in Daegu and neighboring cities by April, but the country has seen a resurgence of the virus in the Seoul metropolitan area since late May.
Officials in the East Asian country of 52 million people announced 31 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total number of infections to 14,336. At least 301 people have died.