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(2nd LD) In snub to prosecution chief, justice minister exercises authority in suspected collusion case

22:44 July 02, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 13-16)

SEOUL, July 2 (Yonhap) -- Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Thursday ordered Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl to suspend the convening of an expert advisory panel to review a suspected collusion case that involves a prosecutor deemed close to Yoon, invoking her authority to command the prosecution's investigation.

"With the investigation going on, experts' assessment on the case might bring out a hasty conclusion, which in turn could hamper the efforts to find the truth," Choo said in an official document sent to the Supreme Prosecutors Office.

With the invocation of her authority, the minister effectively sided with a probe team in charge of the case at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office, which has recently shown tension with the Supreme Prosecutors Office by asking it not to intervene in the investigation and ensure their independence.

The case centers on a reporter from the cable channel Channel A who is suspected of pressuring a jailed financier to divulge corrupt acts by a pro-government commentator. He allegedly tried to leverage his ties with prosecutor Han Dong-hoon, who was deemed powerful enough to influence the inmate's case and believed to be close to Prosecutor General Yoon.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae speaks during a Q&A session of the legislation and judiciary committee at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 1, 2020. (Yonhap)

"The case is related to criminal allegations of an incumbent prosecutor, which receives a lot of public attention," she said in the document.

"To ensure a fair investigation, the team in the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office should not be controlled by senior prosecutors and should independently conduct the probe and report only the outcome to the prosecutor general."

Choo emphasized the case should be handled in a "rational and transparent" manner to avoid any doubt about the investigation's fairness, given the presumably close relations between Han and Yoon.

Last month, the reporter filed a petition with the prosecution to convene a panel of legal experts to review the ongoing probe into him and Han. With the green light from the Supreme Prosecutors Office, Han is said to have already formed a nine-member legal advisory team.

To respond to the request, the jailed financier, for his part, also requested a public assessment of the investigation.

The document was issued less than a day after the justice minister openly voiced her frustration with Yoon in a parliamentary session Wednesday. During the session, the minister criticized Yoon for what she thought was lack of fairness in forming the advisory team.

In response to Choo's decision, the Supreme Prosecutors Office said it will not hold the meeting of the advisory panel on Friday as scheduled, adding only that it is in the process of "gathering different opinions."

The office did not elaborate on whether the meeting was only temporarily suspended or canceled outright. It also did not respond to Choo's calls for a fair investigation.

Yoon has scheduled a meeting with directors of the regional prosecutors' office for Friday to collect their thoughts on Choo's invoking of her authority.

The Supreme Prosecutors Office kept mum on when and where the meeting will take place and exactly who among senior prosecutors will attend.

An official with the Supreme Prosecutors Office said there will be multiple sessions with different groups of prosecutors in an effort to gather opinions from a wide variety of sources.

With his back against the wall following the justice minister's action and mounting political pressure on him to resign, Yoon may be trying to rally senior prosecutors for support.

Choo became the nation's second justice minister to invoke investigative authority, after then-Justice Minister Chun Jung-bae took over command of an investigation into a professor in 2005 for his controversial comments on the nature of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The file photo, taken in the southeastern port city of Busan on Feb. 13, 2020, shows prosecutor Han Dong-hoon (L) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (R). (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
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