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(2nd LD) Ex-Supreme Court chief grilled in power abuse probe

National 15:53 January 11, 2019

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead and 4th para; ADDS paras 12-16 with more details; UPDATES with minor edits; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae was quizzed by prosecutors Friday over a power abuse scandal that has placed the judiciary under unprecedented scrutiny.

Stiff-faced, Yang appeared outside the top court building in southern Seoul ahead of the interrogation scheduled for 9:30 a.m., amid tight security and loud crowds of protesters calling for his punishment.

"I have but myself to blame for all of this. Responsibility rests with me," he told reporters. "I am also deeply sorry to the public for causing concern for the things that happened under my term."

But he rejected the mounting claims that the judiciary was involved in the alleged interference of trials, defending the court system and officials as being devoted to "serving the public in the name of justice."

"We have never acted against our own conscience or the rule of law. And I believe in them," Yang said.

The 71-year-old stands accused of using or seeking to use trials as political leverage to lobby the office of then President Park Geun-hye to get her approval for the establishment of a separate court of appeals, his long-envisioned plan.

He is the first former head of South Korea's Supreme Court to face a prosecution questioning as a criminal suspect. He faces at least 40 counts of charges, including abuse of power and leaking state secrets.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae (C) answers questions from reporters in front of the top court building in southern Seoul on Jan. 11, 2019, ahead of his questioning by the prosecution over power abuse allegations. (Yonhap)

The former veteran justice led the top court from 2011 to September 2017, when he retired.

He allegedly instructed his officials at the National Court Administration (NCA), the top court's governing body, to devise ways to interfere in trials whose rulings potentially held high political significance for Park.

He pressured judges in charge of such trials to deliver verdicts in Park's favor and disadvantaged the judges who were opposed to establishing another appeals court, prosecutors said.

He is also accused of having orchestrated a delay in the deliberation of a damages suit filed by Korean victims of Japan's wartime forced labor, to curry favor with the former president, who was seeking amicable relations with Tokyo.

Yang's decision to make a statement before the media in front of the top court instead of at the main prosecution office has raised eyebrows, with some critics lashing out, calling his move "arrogant."

Prosecution officials blocked entry to the entire premises around the prosecution office and the Supreme Court for the day, not only for security reasons but out of courtesy to the former top court chief. Some 200 journalists and camera crews were pre-selected for the coverage and checked for ID at the site.

Observers speculated that Yang may have carefully planned his approach so as to indirectly insist that the investigation is politically intended.

"If (my officials) had done anything wrong, I would take the blame for it, but I do also want this investigation to be done from an objective point of view, with no bias or prejudice."

He also called on the public to trust the judiciary and to watch the probe without any preconceptions.

Surrounded by a swarm of reporters and camera crews, ex-Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae walks into the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office to be questioned over power abuse allegations on Jan. 11, 2019. (Yonhap)

Prosecutors say they have enough evidence to charge him.

They have obtained a testimony from the then lead justice in the forced labor case claiming how Yang warned him of a possible international dispute if the ruling was made in the victims' favor.

Yang then allegedly told him to "build up arguments that can reverse" the top court's earlier ruling.

The corruption trial of Won Sei-hoon, former spy chief, is also among the trials in question. His election violation charges could potentially undermine the legitimacy of Park's victory in the 2012 presidential race.

The judiciary has come under intense scrutiny over the scandal, mingled with mixed reactions within its own circle toward the widening probe.

While junior-level judges mostly accept the need for the probe and call for self-reflection, many senior judges have expressed displeasure, accusing the prosecution of carrying it too far to discredit the court system.

It is widely expected that prosecutors will seek a court warrant to arrest Yang, for which they would need approval from Prosecutor-General Moon Moo-il, given the nature of the high profile case.

elly@yna.co.kr
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