A Seoul court on Friday rejected an arrest warrant for former Justice Minister Cho Kuk in a probe into his suspected role in ending an inspection into bribery allegations involving a former Busan vice mayor.
Earlier this week, prosecutors filed for an arrest warrant for Cho, former senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, on charges of abuse of authority in connection with the bribery case of now-arrested Yoo Jae-soo.
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk walks out of the Seoul Detention House on early Friday morning. (Yonhap)
After an hourslong hearing, Judge Kwon Deok-jin of the Seoul Eastern District Court rejected the warrant, saying that although the charges have been supported there is no concern the suspect will destroy evidence or flee.
"The nature of the offense in this case is not good, but considering the suspect's testimony and attitude during the hearing, and the fact that his spouse is currently under arrest and on trial for a different case, it is difficult to determine that the gravity of the offense warrants his arrest," Kwon said.
"For now, it is difficult to recognize the reasons for the suspect's arrest, as well as the need and legitimacy," he said.
The prosecution called Cho in twice this month for its investigation into Yoo, who was indicted and detained for accepting bribes worth 49.5 million won (US$42,643) during his term at the state financial regulator.
While Yoo was under surveillance by Cheong Wa Dae's special inspection team in 2017, supervised by then-civil affairs office chief Cho, he avoided punishment despite suspected bribery. In 2018, Yoo became Busan's vice mayor.
The development raised suspicions that some presidential officials may have engaged in a cover-up of the bribery case.
Earlier in the day, Cho said he does not agree with the content of the writ filed by prosecutors.
"I hope that a judgment will be made thoroughly based on legal principles, and I believe it will be," he said upon arrival at the court.
After emerging from the detention center where he had been awaiting the judge's decision, Cho bowed to officers and his driver, but made no comments as he left in a silver car.
Reflecting the intense attention on Cho's hearing, those who support and denounce him held separate rallies in front of the detention center to make their case.
"We won!" his supporters cried out. "Hurray!"
Others who had demanded his arrest hurled insults at Cho and raised their voices in anger.
The rejection will be a setback for the prosecution, which has been also zeroing in on Cho in its separate probe into the ex-minister's family-related allegations.
Cho is under probe into whether he played a role in alleged financial irregularities and academic privilege involving his family. His wife was arrested in October.
It appears likely that the prosecution will file another request to arrest Cho after gathering further evidence or indict him without detention and seek to prove the charges during trial.
The court's initial determination that the charges have been supported sets the stage for an intense legal battle between Cho's attorneys and the prosecution.
Meanwhile, the prosecution may also face a setback over what critics say is an excessive probe. Earlier this month, prosecutors executed a court-issued search warrant for the presidential office in relation to Yoo's case.
Cho claimed through his attorneys that "the ultimate political responsibility is on me" after the first questioning in mid-December. His remarks have been interpreted as insisting that he has no legal responsibility.
Cho reportedly testified that the presidential inquiry showed Yoo's bribery allegations were minor and that the inspection was closed upon deliberation with other key presidential secretaries.
After serving as the justice minister for a month, Cho resigned from the post in mid-October amid controversy about whether he was suitable for the Cabinet post.
President Moon Jae-in appointed Cho as justice minister in August on his commitment to reforming the prosecution. (Yonhap)