The trials of Shincheonji Chairman Man Hee Lee have gathered worldwide attention and resulted in tens of thousands of South Korean citizens applying to gain hearing rights to hear the details of the case.
GWACHEON, KOREA, November 02, 2020 /Neptune100/ — The trial of Shincheonji Church of Jesus Chairman Man Hee Lee continued on October 21st as the court discussed the alleged violation of the Infectious Disease Prevention Act earlier this year.
In mid-February an investigation was launched in the nearly 300,000-member church when an asymptomatic and unknowing COVID-19 carrier attended a worship service at a Shincheonji church location. By the beginning of April, over 5,000 people in the same church location had tested positive for the virus. In the initial investigation of the outbreak, Korean officials requested lists of Shincheonji members, including each member’s Social Security (Resident Registration) number and personal information. These lists included members of other church locations with no confirmed positive cases (including abroad locations). The investigation – and a tax probe which was subsequently launched into the church – resulted in the arrest of Chairman Lee on July 31st. The arrest was made on the grounds of allegedly submitting incomplete lists of Shincheonji members to the government, using church funds to support peace work through another organization, and using a stadium without proper licenses in 2015. Lee’s attorneys argued that the acquisition of the Resident Registration numbers for an epidemiological investigation violated the Personal Information Protection Act, whose purpose was to obtain travel records and perform contact tracing on Shincheonji members.
Many people were also concerned when a public official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Korea who was scheduled to testify in court failed to attend the trial. When asked, the official did not provide a reason for his absence, but came later in the day and did not receive the typical fine of $5,000.
The case also received special attention when a flood of hearing trial attendance applications from citizens were submitted. Sources say that the application limit of 10,000 was exceeded each of three times within 30 minutes of opening the application time. Applications for hearing trial attendance were collected at the same time as a trial of the VP of Samsung, but Lee’s trial collected 300 times more applications.
Attention has also been drawn to this case as many believe Chairman Lee’s age of 90 should be considered when requesting bail. Although Lee has not been found guilty or fully tried, the request for bail was dismissed because of fear that Lee would destroy evidence if released. Many people have spoken up about the suspicions behind this dismissal as well as the conditions that Lee is staying in while awaiting trial. Sources mention that Lee’s cell has no bed or chair despite back surgeries he has had in the past, and he cannot leave the detention center even for medical care. When in court, he has attended using a wheelchair.
Reports show that it is not only Chairman Lee who seems to be receiving harsh treatment. According to a Shincheonji spokesperson in a BBC news interview, the church is often labeled as a cult and its members are heavily persecuted, reporting over 5,500 human rights violations since the beginning of the pandemic. A common practice of this persecution against Shincheonji members includes Coercive Conversion, a method used to forcefully “un-convert” someone from a certain religion. One recent report detailed the occurrence of an envelope mailed to a Shincheonji church containing 20g of cyanide and a letter demanding over 1 million dollars. The letter included a threat to harm Shincheonji members if the money was not sent. Many world leaders have spoken up about the persecution against Shincheonji, including the former Prime Minister of Haiti who called for the end of scapegoating of the religious group within Korea.
Despite the persecution, Chairman Lee encouraged Shincheonji members who had recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma to help with therapeutic treatments and development of a vaccine. This resulted in a record-breaking plasma donation drive when over 1,646 Shincheonji members gathered and donated. Shincheonji is reportedly planning more plasma donation drives in the near future.
More trials of Chairman Lee are currently underway.