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Ministry opens disciplinary proceedings against prosecutor general

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)
The Ministry of Justice convened a hearing Thursday to decide the level of disciplinary action against Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl over a series of alleged irregularities, in an unprecedented move that highlights a long-simmering conflict between the top prosecutor and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae.

Yoon absented himself from the meeting, which started at 10:30 a.m. at Gwacheon Government Complex and will determine whether he is subject to disciplinary action over allegations raised by the justice minister against him last month.

The chief prosecutor’s attempt to recuse four of the seven committee members, who were selected by the minister, ended in failure with the committee rejecting the motion filed by his legal team.

The committee consists of seven members -- Choo, Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu, two prosecutors and three external legal professionals selected by the minister.

Given that the justice minister requested the disciplinary committee hearing, by law she is not allowed to attend. Instead, Chung Han-joong, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School, chaired the committee on behalf of Choo.

Yoon‘s attorneys cited concerns over the fairness of their judgment and deliberations to be made by four members, including committee chair Chung and Ahn Jean, a professor at Chonnam National University Law School who has been working with the government for prosecution reform. Prosecutor Shim Jae-chul voluntarily removed himself from the hearing.

On Nov. 24, Choo temporarily suspended Yoon, until the disciplinary committee makes a decision, citing six allegations including illegal surveillance of judges and obstructing an inspection into senior prosecutor Han Dong-hoon, his close associate.

However, Yoon returned to work after the Seoul Administrative Court granted an injunction against the suspension, prompting Choo to take the case to a higher court for review.

Yoon’s legal team reportedly rebutted the allegations of wrongdoing, saying they could not be presumed true and that some of the alleged actions were conducted for work purposes.

Three legal advisers representing the prosecutor general attended the hearing. Yoon decided not to appear due to what he claimed were procedural flaws during the process of putting together the disciplinary committee and the ministry’s investigation into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, of which he is the head.

To guarantee Yoon his legitimate right to a defense, the attorneys have requested the opportunity to inspect or copy the ministry’s investigation records on him and demanded that the ministry disclose the list of disciplinary committee members.

Lee Wan-kyu, one of Yoon’s legal representatives, said he would exert his utmost efforts to convince the committee members that any disciplinary action against the prosecutor general would be unlawful and unjust.

“We haven’t received testimony or evidence from the Ministry of Justice that would be disadvantageous to Yoon. We are attending the meeting without knowing that key information,” Lee told reporters at Gwacheon Government Complex.

In stark contrast to Lee’s assertion, the committee reportedly said a sufficient amount of the ministry’s investigation records had been allowed to be copied. It added that some information was only allowed to be inspected or only notes could be taken, to protect internal sources.

There are five possible levels of punishment, with dismissal the heaviest and a reprimand the lightest. If the committee decides to impose any penalty stronger than a salary reduction, the minister will have to seek the approval of President Moon Jae-in.

The chief prosecutor is expected to take legal action after the committee rules, such as filing an administrative suit and seeking a stay of execution.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)
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