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[Ferry Disaster] Arrest warrant sought for ferry firm owner

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Published : 2014-05-16 21:25
Updated : 2014-05-16 21:56

Prosecutors on Friday requested a preliminary arrest warrant for Yoo Byung-eon, the de facto owner of the Sewol, on the charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion after he disobeyed the summons for questioning.

Yoo and his family are suspected of illegally pocketing billions of won in company funds from several of their affiliates.

The Incheon District Court said that it would review the prosecution’s request on Tuesday.

Yoo’s eldest son Dae-gyun, is currently on the run from the prosecution after disobeying his summons. He was put on the nationwide wanted list by authorities on Wednesday.
Yoo Byung-eon (Yonhap)

Yoo, the former chairman of the now-defunct Semo Group, is believed to be hiding inside the headquarters of a religious sect allegedly led by his family.

Hundreds of the members of the sect have gathered at Geumsuwon, the sect’s main estate in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, and formed a human barricade behind its main gate to block the investigators’ possible entry.

The members of the sect claimed that the authorities are turning Yoo and the religious body into a scapegoat to blame for the sinking of the Sewol that took nearly 300 lives.

Yoo is believed to have controlled the ferry’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. through two of his sons, who own stakes in the firm through various subsidiaries.

“Chonghaejin Marine may be responsible for the Sewol’s sinking, but the deaths of the passengers are on the Coast Guard,” the cult’s spokesman said in a press conference Thursday in front of Geumsuwon.

As of Friday afternoon, an estimated 1,000 members from across the country gathered at Geumsuwon, and protested what they claimed was an unfair “witch hunt” of the cult. According to sources, the prosecutors are mulling over forcibly entering the premises.

The Salvation Sect has refused to confirm whether Yoo was currently in the retreat, but claimed that his eldest son Dae-gyun was not there.

Even if the prosecutors decided on forced entry, detaining Yoo will not be an easy task.

Jeong Dong-sub, a leader of a victims’ group of heretical sects’ and a former member of the Salvation Sect, said the cult members are likely to be faithful to their words that they will “stop the authorities with their lives.” He said in a radio interview that Yoo’s father-in-law likened him to Jesus, while some members actually think Yoo is God.

The investigators have zeroed in on Yoo since the Sewol went down on April 16. They are attempting to prove that he and his family created slush funds worth billions and that he was the actual decision-maker of Chonghaejin Marine.

If the prosecutors can prove the Yoos operated the company, they can hold the family liable for the irregularities that led to the tragic accident.

The cult has blasted the presidential office, specifically chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, for turning a blind eye to the owner family and the group’s supposed innocence. The religious group claimed that while it was also initially blamed for a mysterious mass suicide in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, in 1987, the subsequent investigation found that the incident was not related to the cult.

The group has some 100 churches in Korea and about 200,000 members worldwide.

In another potential scandal, a former employee of Chonghaejin Marine told local media recently that the Sewol’s captain and over 90 percent of the company were members of the sect. He also claimed that the company forces the heretical religion onto nonbelievers.

If the claims turn out to be true, it can spark further criticism of the already embattled sect. The crew is facing criminal charges, with some charged with manslaughter. The investigation revealed that they abandoned the ship well before any of the passengers did while being fully aware the vessel was doomed.

The religious group, however, denied the allegations, saying only two members of the Sewol’s crew are its members.

As of Friday, 20 of the 476 crew and passengers on the ship remained missing while the death toll stood at 284.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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