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(3rd LD) Prosecution moves to seize Sewol owner family's assets

All Headlines 22:13 May 28, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with French court's rejection of eldest daughter's bail request 9-12)

INCHEON, May 28 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutors said Wednesday that they have taken legal steps to provisionally confiscate more than 200 billion won (US$196 million) worth of assets held by the owner family of the sunken ferry Sewol, as part of their efforts to hold the fugitive family criminally liable for the deadly disaster.

Yoo Byung-eun, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and his family are suspected to have accumulated at least 240 billion won worth of earnings both at home and abroad through various crimes, prosecutors said.

Yoo and his three children -- Som-na, Dae-kyun, and Hyuk-ki -- are wanted for a string of corruption charges and irregularities that are believed to have contributed to the sinking of the ferry off the southwest coast on April 16. The tragedy left more than 300 people, mostly high school students, dead or missing.

The Incheon District Prosecutors' Office in the western port city of Incheon probing the case said it has asked a district court to temporarily seize the assets before bringing charges against the Yoo family.

"The prosecution sought a court order to preserve the assets of the Yoo family that are held under their real names," Kim Hoe-jong, a senior prosecutor investigating the case, said in a press briefing.

The move is part of the prosecution's efforts to prevent the suspects from siphoning off the alleged criminal earnings before their trials, prosecutors said.

The prosecution office said it is also concentrating on tracing more assets, suspected to be hidden under borrowed names, to support families of the victims in pursuing compensation suits.

Prosecutors suspect that Yoo effectively owns Chonghaejin Marine through two of his sons and is responsible for the ship's allegedly lax safety practices. Motivated by profit, the operator overloaded the ship with passengers and cargo even though its balance was substantially compromised after remodeling.

The prosecution office on Sunday hiked the rewards for information leading to the arrests of Yoo and his eldest son, Dae-kyun, to 500 million won and 100 million won, respectively. Yoo's eldest daughter Som-na was arrested in France Tuesday. The rest of the family has been evading a massive manhunt for weeks.

According to South Korea's Ministry of Justice, a French court rejected Som-na's request to be released on bail on Wednesday, a decision that will see her kept in custody for up to 40 days pending extradition proceedings.

Under an extradition treaty between the two countries, Som-na is subject to extradition to South Korea because of charges relating to corruption amounting to some 49.2 billion won.

However, even if the French government decides to extradite her, it could take several months or longer if she contests the decision.

Also on Wednesday, the prosecution officially detained two more close aides to Yoo and indicted them on embezzlement and breach-of-duty charges as part of their investigation into the corruption involving the Yoo family.

The two -- Go Chang-hwan, head of Semo Group, and Byeon Ki-choon, head of Semo's shipbuilding unit Chonhaiji -- are suspected of inflicting a total of 30.1 billion won worth of losses on their firms to help the owner family create slush funds, prosecutors said. Semo is the now-defunct predecessor of Chonghaejin Marine.

They allegedly paid large sums of company funds to purchase photographs taken by Yoo at excessively high prices, and for consulting services from a paper company owned by Yoo's family.

The indictments brought to six the number of Yoo's aides who are to stand trial for their alleged involvement in the corruption scandal.

Prosecutors also arrested a 60-something female follower of Evangelical Baptist Church on charges of helping Yoo evade the massive dragnet. Another female follower surnamed Shin was detained for questioning on similar charges. Shin is reported to be an American national.

The church was established by Yoo's father-in-law, Kwon Sin-chan, in the 1960s. It is widely considered a cult, with its some 20,000 followers including most of the senior officials of Chonghaejin and its affiliates.

Meanwhile, prosecutors indicted four vessel safety managers on charges of falsifying a mandatory safety inspection form for the Sewol.

The four managers with the Incheon regional office of the Korea Shipping Association, whose identities were withheld, didn't conduct a safety check before the ill-fated ferry departed from the western port of Incheon the night before the accident. They allegedly filled out the inspection form based on information relayed verbally to them by the ferry's captain after it had left the port.

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