(ATTN: UPDATES with details of ruling, background from 3rd para; ADDS photo)
SUWON, South Korea, Nov. 13 (Yonhap) -- A local court on Wednesday acquitted the leader of a minor religious sect of charges of obstructing the government's response to COVID-19 during an outbreak at his church last year.
Lee Man-hee, the 89-year-old founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was indicted in August on charges of misleading health authorities on the size and locations of the church's gatherings in February, which were blamed for a massive spike in coronavirus cases in the country.
Prosecutors sought a five-year prison sentence and a 3 million won (US$2,738) fine for Lee, saying he mocked the government's authority and obstructed its efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"The health authorities' request to Shincheonji for a list of church members' names and its facilities cannot be regarded as an epidemiological survey," Judge Kim Mi-kyung said at the Suwon District Court, just south of Seoul.
"We cannot punish someone on charges of obstructing antivirus efforts for leaving out certain data, when (the request) had more to do with data collection than an actual epidemiological survey," she added.
The sect became a hotbed for coronavirus infections after one of its members in the southeastern city of Daegu tested positive on Feb. 18.
Some 4,000 members, most of them associated with the branch in Daegu, later tested positive.
Lee was also indicted on charges of embezzling 5.6 billion won from church funds to build a training center for members and travel overseas for speaking engagements.
Separately, he was charged with holding unauthorized religious events at local government facilities from 2015 to 2019.
The court found him partially guilty on both counts and sentenced him to three years in prison, suspended for four years.
Lee, who was detained in August and then released on bail in November, left the courtroom in a wheelchair.
He has denied all charges against him.
In March, he held a press conference to apologize to the nation for failing to quickly stop the spread of COVID-19 from his church.
Yoon's outreach to Southeast Asia keeps China in the loop
Allies' defense chiefs highlight watertight alliance based on full extended deterrence against N. Korean threats
(News Focus) Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Role of administrative authorities questioned in Itaewon disaster