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Ex-justice minister denies power abuse allegations

Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk denied allegations on Thursday that he had abused his power to suspend a presidential inquiry into a former Busan vice mayor, as he attended an arrest warrant hearing in connection with the case.    

After the hearing, Cho said through his lawyer that he had neither abused his power nor stopped the internal inquiry into Yoo Jae-soo, who was suspected of taking bribes. Cho also denied attempting to destroy evidence.

At the hearing, which lasted four hours and 20 minutes, Cho admitted that confidants to President Moon Jae-in had influenced him to make a political decision, according to local media. It was other former presidential secretaries, not Cho, who had received phone calls asking for leniency for Yoo, according to his lawyer.

Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk (Yonhap)
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk (Yonhap)

“I have for long endured a persistent, all-out investigation by the prosecution into my whole family so far. It was a hard time,” Cho said as he entered the Seoul Eastern District Court at around 10:05 a.m. “I disagree with the content of the arrest warrant filed by the prosecution.”

The hearing came as Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-shim, is on trial for alleged irregularities surrounding a dubious financial investment as well as the process of her daughter’s admission to college.

Cho is accused by prosecutors of abusing his power in 2017 as then-presidential secretary for civil affairs to end his office’s special inspection into Yoo, who was arrested on bribery charges Dec. 13, despite substantial evidence against him.

Yoo was under inspection by the presidential office -- of which Cho was in charge -- on suspicion that he took bribes from four businesspeople when he served as a director general at the Financial Services Commission in 2017.

Cho informed the FSC of the alleged irregularities surrounding Yoo, instead of sending the case to the prosecution, which prosecutors consider an abuse of power on Cho’s part and an attempt to help Yoo avoid punishment. Yoo later resigned from the post and in 2018 became Busan’s vice mayor in charge of economic affairs.

Cho left the court without answering any questions from journalists. He was transferred to the Seoul Dongbu Detention Center while awaiting a decision on his arrest, which was expected later in the day or early Friday morning.

Cho, who was called in for questioning on two occasions last week, maintains that the decision was within his discretion as presidential secretary for civil affairs. He admitted only to “political responsibility,” denying “criminal responsibility.”

Cho’s supporters and his opponents gathered near the court from the early morning.

Cho’s supporters urged the suspension of what they called the “unreasonable” investigation, holding up placards reading “We are Cho Kuk” or “Protect Cho Kuk, reform the prosecution,” while his opponents -- members of conservative civic groups -- called for his arrest.

Whether the court issues the arrest warrant or not, its decision is expected to be a crucial turning point in the prosecution’s monthslong probe into allegations surrounding Cho and the presidential office’s alleged involvement in a cover-up of the Yoo investigation.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)

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