Justice Minister Park Beom-kye ordered the prosecution to probe suspicions that former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook may have been wrongfully convicted of accepting bribes based on false testimony after prosecutors forced witnesses to lie in court.
Park even invoked his authority to command an investigation, a power that has rarely been used out of respect for the independence of the prosecution.
But after reviewing the allegations, the prosecution concluded that they were groundless. This means the prosecutors who investigated the case are cleared of all suspicions of suborning perjury.
The acting prosecutor general and 13 other top-ranking prosecutors of the Supreme Prosecutors’ and High Prosecutors’ offices discussed the issue, and 10 voted to clear the prosecutors who investigated the case.
Park apparently expected them to lay the blame on those prosecutors, but his expectations were shattered.
He made no secret of his dissatisfaction, saying on Monday that it was questionable if the prosecution’s conclusion reflected the intent of his investigation command.
He ordered an inspection into the process of finding the suspicions groundless, and into the investigation practices.
This exposes his obsessive desire to prove the innocence of Han, who is known as the godmother of supporters of the late President Roh Moo-hyun. President Moon Jae-in is said to be an ardent supporter of Han’s. When the Supreme Court upheld Han’s conviction, Moon said he was “convinced of her innocence in the court of history and conscience.”
But her case was closed with the Supreme Court ruling. Prosecution inspectors have already looked at the accusations of suborning perjury and found them groundless. And yet Park has commanded a review of that investigation.
Park may have expected the prosecution to conclude that perjury had taken place and Han was unfairly convicted. But they could not because of hard evidence incriminating her. How could she be made innocent?
The truth of her case is that she accepted bribes. The top court made its decision based on this.
A former businessman told prosecutors in 2010 that he paid Han about 900 million won ($797,000) in illegal political funds from March to August 2007, when she was a ruling party lawmaker after serving as prime minister for Roh.
A 100 million won check written by the former businessman was found to have been used by Han’s younger sister as part of her jeonse (housing lease) deposit. Han was also found to have had her secretary return 200 million won to the briber.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling and sentenced Han to two years in jail for accepting bribes. Han served her time and got out of prison in August 2017.
The former businessman told prosecutors he had bribed Han, but in court he denied giving her money. But the Supreme Court upheld his sentence of two years behind bars for perjury, separately from the bribery case.
In April last year the ministry received a complaint from an inmate who spent time in prison together with the former businessman, to the effect that prosecutors pressed his fellow inmates to testify falsely that they had heard the former businessman say he would change his statement in court. In June, another inmate asked the prosecution to inspect the team that investigated the Han case.
On March 5, this year, inspectors of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office who examined the complaint said there was neither any perjury nor any suborning of perjury by prosecutors.
Still, Park invoked his investigation command, and top prosecutors reached the same conclusion again.
Of course, some cases may necessitate the justice minister’s investigation command, but past governments were careful about exercising that authority. It was invoked only once before the Moon Jae-in administration. However, former Minister Choo Mi-ae exercised it six times in about a year. Park invoked it less than two months after taking office.
The authority should be minimally exercised. In particular, there should be no place for politically biased commands.
The Han case is probably not the only case where a change of testimony has become an issue. So why did the justice minister single out her case, above all the others? People cannot help but wonder.
Law pursues justice. An essential condition for justice is equality before the law. It undermines justice to give special treatment to a certain person or a certain case.
By commanding a review of her case with the apparent expectation for overturning its outcome, he has ditched fairness and justice.