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(3rd LD) Justice ministry requests probe into chief prosecutor over inspection of judges

All News 19:58 November 26, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES with justice ministry's probe request in paras 1-6)

SEOUL, Nov. 26 (Yonhap) -- The justice ministry requested the prosecution Thursday to investigate Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl over allegations of illegal inspection of judges involved in politically sensitive cases.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae suspended Yoon from duty Tuesday as she sought a disciplinary measure against him over six counts of alleged misdeeds, including collecting personal information of justices in charge of cases related to a former justice minister and suspected election interference by presidential officials.

"Under his directive, an illegal inspection document was written and distributed, and it contained sensitive personal information that could be misused to affect rulings," the ministry said in a statement, requesting the Supreme Prosecutors Office's investigation into Yoon.

The announcement was made two hours after Yoon's lawyer unveiled the nine-page document, dated Feb. 26, 2020, to back his argument that the report was part of normal information gathering activities.

Prosecutor Sung Sang-wook, who drafted the report, said that there was nothing unusual about it. The report was created based on materials gathered through legal sources, including media reports, he said.

The ministry countered the argument, saying that the report included information that had not been in the public domain.

Officials walk by the Oath of Prosecutor posted on the wall at the Seoul Central District Court on Nov. 26, 2020. (Yonhap)

Earlier in the day, Yoon filed a lawsuit against Choo's decision with the Seoul Administrative Court. He also sought an injunction late Wednesday to stop the minister's suspension order from taking effect.

In the complaint, he argued that the allegations against him raised by the minister are largely untrue and exaggerated. While issuing an item-by-item rebuttal of the suspicions, he also said that, even if true, they are not serious enough to merit suspension of duty.

"Unilaterally seeking disciplinary measures and suspending duty practically means a dismissal, which disregards the term system (of the prosecutor general), democracy and rule of law," he said.

The justice ministry said it will convene a seven-member committee next Wednesday to decide the level of disciplinary action against Yoon, and that it asked Yoon or his lawyer to attend the meeting.

Meanwhile, prosecutors around the country held emergency meetings to discuss the justice minister's unprecedented move.

Six top district prosecutors pleaded with Minister Choo to rethink the decision in a statement posted on the online bulletin board of the prosecution.

They expressed concerns over perceived risk of political neutrality of the prosecution and said that the prosecutor general's term should be legally guaranteed as it is designed to protect the prosecution from undue "political interference."

They also questioned whether the minister's recent series of orders to ban Yoon from being involved in controversial investigations was "carried out in a prudent and restrained manner."

Twenty-seven senior prosecutors at the Supreme Prosecutors Office in Seoul also issued a statement, calling for the decision to be rolled back, followed by a series of other groups expressing similar concerns.

This photo shows the building of the Supreme Prosecutors Office in Seoul on Nov. 25, 2020. (Yonhap)

Their worries echoed the sentiment expressed by a group of rank and file prosecutors the previous day.

On Wednesday, two groups of prosecutors, in Seoul and Busan, issued statements in protest of what they call Choo's "illegal and unjust" measure.

"Justice Minister Choo's action seriously undermines the rule of law and violates the independence of the prosecution," a group of prosecutors in charge of research and planning at the Supreme Prosecutors Office said in a statement.

They requested the minister withdraw the decision so that prosecutors can fulfill their duties "in accordance with the Constitution and conscience."

Prosecutors of the eastern branch of the Busan District Prosecutors Office also held a meeting Wednesday and said the decision was "unjust" because "the facts have not been fully confirmed."

The file photos shows Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (L) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (R). (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
(END)

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