South Korea sect leader cleared of hindering virus effort

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Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was cleared of hindering the government's anti-virus efforts, but convicted of embezzlement

The elderly leader of a secretive religious sect at the centre of South Korea's early coronavirus outbreak was not guilty of hindering the government's virus prevention efforts, a district court ruled Wednesday.

But Lee Man-hee was convicted of embezzling billions of won from his organisation and given a suspended prison sentence.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult, was at the centre of huge controversy early last year when it accounted for more than half of South Korea's coronavirus cases.

At the time, the country was enduring one of the worst early outbreaks of the disease outside China, but later largely brought it under control with widespread testing and tracing.

Shuncheonji's leader Lee, 89, was taken into custody in August and accused of giving health authorities inaccurate records of church gatherings and false lists of its members.

Prosecutors last month requested a five-year jail term.

But the Suwon District Court cleared him of violating the infectious disease control law.

Lee apologised in March for the spread of the disease, twice getting to his knees to bow before reporters, his head to the floor.

"Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected," he said at the time.

"I seek the forgiveness of the people."

The church has also apologised, while more than 3,500 of its members who survived the virus donated blood plasma to help treatment research.

Lee was, however, convicted of embezzling more than 5.7 billion Korean won ($5.2 million) from Shincheonji and submitting false applications to hold religious events at public sports facilities.

He was given a three-year suspended jail term.

Researchers say the sect proclaims Lee has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement.

It was heavily vilified back in February, and more than 1.4 million people signed a petition on the South Korean presidential office website demanding its dissolution. It is known to have some 200,000 followers.

Shincheonji has claimed its members face social stigma and discrimination if their beliefs become publicly known, dissuading some from responding to official inquiries.

In recent weeks South Korea has several times recorded more than 1,000 new cases a day -- low by global standards, but its highest figures to date -- and has raised its social restrictions.