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Choo catches flak for indictment gag order

Feb 06,2020
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Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae speaks to reporters on her way to work at the central government complex in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, on Wednesday. [YONHAP]
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s unprecedented decision to stop full disclosure of indictments of allies of President Moon Jae-in in an election-meddling scandal touched off an uproar on Wednesday.

“We’ve reached a conclusion that a wrongful custom must no longer be repeated,” Choo told reporters Wednesday morning on her way to the office. “Until now, we have seen a wrongful routine where lawmakers demanded indictment documents, and the media released their entire texts. Due to this practice, the people’s right to a trial was violated, and various fundamental rights were infringed upon during the criminal justice process.”

Choo was responding to a public uproar after the Ministry of Justice on Tuesday rejected the National Assembly’s request for indictment documents for 13 suspects linked to the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election scandal. The ministry said it withheld the information because it could violate the defendants’ right to a fair trial and privacy.

Instead of submitting 70 pages of incitement materials, the ministry offered a four-page summary.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating suspicions that presidential aides helped Song Cheol-ho, a friend of Moon, to win the election in 2018 by triggering a police corruption investigation into his rival, Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon, just three months before the race. A month before the election, police referred the case to prosecutors, who cleared Kim of any wrongdoing in March 2019 - and criticized the police for overreacting.

On Jan. 29, the prosecution indicted 13 people including Ulsan Mayor Song, Ulsan Vice Mayor Song Byung-gi and former Ulsan police chief Hwang Un-ha for election law violations. Former Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Han Byung-do, former Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Baek Won-woo and former Presidential Secretary for Anticorruption Park Hyoung-chul were also indicted.

Former Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok was questioned on Jan. 30 about his suspected role in the scandal, but the prosecution decided to suspend the probe until after the April 15 general elections in order to avoid unnecessary political repercussions.

Choo insisted Wednesday that disclosing the full texts of the indictments was also a violation of new internal guidelines for the ministry introduced last Dec. 1. According to the guidelines, prosecutors are barred from various types of public exposure, including media access, to criminal cases and suspects. “It is unacceptable for the ministry, which sets the rules, to not respect them,” she said.

Choo said the public will know more details about the indictments when trials start. “Other than that, the ministry will not offer any more information to the National Assembly,” she said.

She also ordered an investigation into how the Dong-A Ilbo obtained the indictment documents and reported the details. “We need to check how it was leaked,” Choo said.

The Dong-A Ilbo published Wednesday a series of exclusive reports based on the indictment papers, without revealing the source. According to the newspaper, Song Cheol-ho had a dinner with Ulsan police chief Hwang on Sept. 20, 2017, and asked him to conduct a “more aggressive, concentrated probe” into his rival Kim.

After the probe began, the Blue House received a total of 21 briefings on its progress from the police, the report said. The Blue House received 18 briefings on the progress of the probe before the June 2018 local elections and three after the election. Moon loyalist Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs at the time, received at least 15 briefings, the report quoted the indictment documents as saying.

Prosecutors criticized Choo’s decision to withhold the information. “As part of criminal justice system reform, the Roh Moo-hyun government started making public indictment documents since May 2005,” a prosecutor told the JoongAng Ilbo. “This is a violation of the people’s right to information. This is a worst-of-the-worst move.”

Law experts said the ministry’s withholding of indictment papers is illegal. The National Assembly Act and the act governing testimony, appraisal and others before the National Assembly said state offices are required to submit documents demanded by the National Assembly unless they concern secrets about the military or foreign affairs and North Korea.

Others raised suspicion about the timing. While indictment documents against figures from the previous conservative administration of Park Geun-hye were all made public, the new standard was abruptly applied when the indictments were against figures from the Moon Blue House.

“This case is serious enough to fatally wound the administration, even if partial acquittals are handed down,” a judge told the JoongAng Ilbo. “[The ministry’s decision] is lamentable.”

The conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and New Conservative Party (NCP) fiercely attacked the administration. The LKP asked the Seoul Central District Court to access and copy the indictment documents, since it was a petitioner in the investigation. Some LKP lawmakers separately applied for access to the indictments to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

“If they had nothing to hide, why would they keep it a secret?” LKP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said. “Until now, most information, except for very personal details, was disclosed for the sake of the people’s right to know. That was how we operated when I was the justice minister [of the Park government].”

Hwang said the party will take any legal measures to make public the indictment documents.

LKP Rep. Kwak Sang-do said Moon and Choo were betraying the legacy of the Roh administration. He said Moon must apologize to the people for the election-meddling scandal and submit to the prosecution’s investigation.

Chairman Ha Tae-keung of the NCP also condemned Choo. “She is insulting President Roh, who first ordered the disclosure of indictment documents for the sake of criminal justice system reform and the people’s right to information,” he said. “If we follow Choo’s logic, it means that Roh ordered such disclosure for the sake of unfair trials and violations of rights.”

Even some liberals expressed opposition. “The indictment documents must be revealed transparently to guarantee the people’s right to information and allow the people to make their own judgments,” said the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a liberal civic group and a strong patron of the Moon administration, in a statement.

“The ministry’s excuses are extremely lame,” it said. “It goes against existing conventions. It also restricts the people’s right to know and an opportunity to make judgments about this case. It is unacceptable decision.”

“Refusing to disclose the indictment is a de facto admission that they meddled in the election,” said Ahn Cheol-soo, former head of the Bareunmirae Party.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]