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Justice minister, top prosecutor headed toward legal showdown

Justice Ministry to decide on top prosecutor’s fate Dec. 2; rank-and-file prosecutors come to Yoon’s defense

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (Yonhap)
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae (left) and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl (Yonhap)
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, on his second day of being suspended from work, filed a lawsuit against Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Thursday, claiming the minister’s disciplinary action is unjust and groundless. The lawsuit was filed with the Seoul Administrative Court. Yoon on Wednesday night also filed for a pretrial injunction to quash the suspension order.

The move came as the Justice Ministry asked its disciplinary committee to convene Dec. 2 to deliberate on allegations leveled by Choo against Yoon and determine his fate.

In a press release revealed after the suit was filed, Yoon’s lawyer rebutted all the allegations raised by Choo on Tuesday when she announced Yoon’s suspension. These included carrying out illegal surveillance of judges, interfering in investigations involving his close associates and liberal politicians, and intentionally leaking information to the media.

Regarding the suspicion that he received reports from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s information collecting unit on the personal details and political tendencies of judges, Yoon denied having carried out illegal surveillance.

“It is not surveillance by taking account of the facts that the purpose of the report was to give guidelines to prosecutors and that the report was based on the data that has been made public,” the press release said.

Jang Chang-guk, a senior judge with the Jeju District Court, on Wednesday asked the National Court Administration to launch an investigation on the background checks on judges.

“Prosecutors should receive a verdict of guilty by using evidence, not using the political tendencies of judges,” he said in a statement he posted on the court’s intranet.

Amid the escalating tension between the two judicial chiefs, rank-and-file prosecutors on Thursday voiced their opposition to Choo’s decision.

Some 27 mid-ranking officials at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office issued a joint statement Thursday, arguing the minister’s move was “illegal and unjust.” They said she had failed to follow due process under the law, and that the allegations leveled against Yoon were not fully substantiated.

Branch chiefs of district prosecutors’ offices and high prosecutors’ offices joined them in supporting Yoon.

“We ask the suspension and disciplinary claim against the prosecutor general be reconsidered and corrected so that the goal of prosecution reform aims at ensuring the prosecution’s democratic control and political neutrality won’t be distorted,” a statement released under the names of 17 chiefs read.

Prosecutors in Busan and Daegu issued their own statements on the online bulletin board of the prosecution on Wednesday, saying Choo’s action “seriously undermines the rule of law and violates the independence of the prosecution.”

Collective actions by prosecutors are expected to intensify as many consider convening a nationwide meeting to lodge a protest.

The Justice Ministry confirmed Thursday that its disciplinary committee would meet Dec. 2 to decide the level of punishment to be imposed on Yoon. The ministry asked Yoon or his lawyer to attend the meeting.

It is widely expected that the seven-member committee will hand down the toughest measure -- dismissal -- as the disciplinary review group will consist of people of the justice minister’s choice in accordance with the current law. Any disciplinary action requires a majority vote.

The prosecution chief denies any wrongdoing. He filed an injunction with the Seoul Administrative Court online Wednesday, seeking to halt the execution of the justice minister’s order to suspend him from duty, according to his attorney Lee Wan-kyu.

Should the injunction be granted, Yoon will be able to get back to work. It typically takes a week or two for the court to decide on such a case.

Experts said Choo’s order to suspend Yoon from duty could undermine the law that guarantees a two-year term for a prosecutor general. Yoon’s tenure expires in July 2021.

The results will deal a blow either to Choo or Yoon. Choo took office in January with a mission to complete President Moon Jae-in’s prosecution reform initiative but has been losing momentum with lukewarm public support.

Support from conservative voters for Yoon, on the other hand, has grown stronger in recent months after the series of confrontations with Choo. But he faces a slew of allegations suggesting that he may have abused his power to help prosecutors avoid internal investigations and supported them in gaining the upper hand in cases involving liberal political figures.

By Park Han-na (