(ATTN: TRIMS headline; ADDS details in 5th para, last para, photo)
SEOUL, Oct. 16 (Yonhap) -- Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung was acquitted on Friday of violating election law, winning a high-profile retrial that could have cost him his governorship.
The Suwon High Court overturned its previous verdict and found him not guilty of spreading false information during televised debate shows in the runup to the 2018 local elections.
In July, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the appeals court in a ruling that said Lee should not be punished for what he said during the debates, as they were not intended to deliberately disseminate misinformation.
"It is more important to guarantee freedom of expression (during a debate) to offer (debaters) room, free of legal responsibilities," Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo said while delivering the livestreamed verdict, adding that it is impossible to hold a politician accountable for every inaccurate expression he or she makes.
In the retrial, the court echoed the view of the highest court, saying that Lee's comments during the debates were no more than "answers to the questions" from a rival debater and that they were not seen as deliberate acts of disseminating false information, even if they might sound evasive and defensive.
Lee's trial has attracted national attention for its political implications. He governs the country's biggest administrative division with a population of 13 million and is considered one of the ruling Democratic Party's strong presidential hopefuls. In 2017, he unsuccessfully ran against President Moon Jae-in in the party's presidential primary. Recent opinion polls found that Lee was among the leading potential presidential candidates.
In December 2018, Lee was indicted on four charges, including power abuse and violating the national election law, related to allegations that he used his official position to lock his elder brother in a mental hospital against his will in April 2012. Lee denied involvement in the forced hospitalization on television debate shows in 2018.
In May 2019, the Seongnam branch of the Suwon District Court found Lee not guilty of the four criminal charges. But the Suwon High Court fined Lee 3 million won (US$2,506) in September for spreading false information about the hospitalization on television.
By law, elected public officials lose their posts and are not allowed to run for a public post for five years if they receive a sentence heavier than imprisonment or are fined more than 1 million won for violating the election law and political funding act.
After the ruling, Lee thanked the court and said, "I want to spend all my energy and time in working for the people in the province."
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