SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — South Korea’s opposition leader avoided arrest on Wednesday when a court dismissed a request from the prosecution for him to be taken into custody pending trial on various corruption charges.
Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party, still faces trial on charges of bribery in connection with a firm that is suspected of illicitly transferring US$8 million to North Korea.
The 58-year-old is also accused of breaching his duties, which allegedly resulted in a loss of 20 billion won (US$15 million) for a company owned by Seongnam city during his term as its mayor.
Prosecutors last week requested an arrest warrant against Lee, a former presidential candidate.
In a surprise move, South Korea’s opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to strip Lee of his parliamentary immunity a few days later.
But in a pre-dawn judgement on Wednesday, the Seoul Central District Court dismissed the request following a marathon nine-hour sitting, which Lee attended.
A judge concluded that it was “difficult to see that there are grounds and necessity for detention” adding there was low risk of Lee destroying evidence due to him being a public figure.
Lee has denied all the allegations against him, stating during Tuesday’s hearing that it felt as though he had become “the enemy of the world”.
He thanked the court for “being the last bastion of human rights”, after it handed down the judgement.
But Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the investigation would continue regardless.
The court’s decision not to confine him does not mean “Lee is innocent of any crime”, Han told reporters.
“The prosecution has been investigating fairly according to the procedure and will continue to do so,” he added.
Lee launched a hunger strike on 31 August over what he calls the government’s “incompetent and violent” policies, especially its failure to oppose Japan’s release of treated wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.
He returned to the hospital where he had been treated for fasting-related ailments after the court’s judgement, local reports said.
He was hospitalised on 18 September after 19 days on hunger strike.
A former child factory worker who suffered an industrial accident as a teenage school drop-out, Lee rose to political stardom partly by playing up his rags-to-riches tale.
But his bid for the top office has been overshadowed by a string of scandals.
He faced scrutiny over a questionable land development deal and persistent rumours linking him to organised crime.
At least five individuals connected to Lee’s various scandals in the past have been found dead, many in what appeared to be suicides.
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