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Opposition leader appears in court, denies charges of violating election law

March 3, 2023 - 17:31 By Son Ji-hyoung
Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung (center) is seen entering the Seoul Central District Court to attend a court trial over his alleged violation of the election law during the presidential campaign in 2021-2022 on Friday. (Yonhap)

Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung denied charges of violating election law during the presidential election campaign in 2021 during a court appearance Friday.

It was Lee's first court appearance since he was narrowly defeated by President Yoon Suk Yeol in March 2022 election and later was voted chair of the opposition party that controls the National Assembly with 169 seats out of 299.

Lee reiterated his claim that the prosecution's charge against him is "unreasonable." Lee faces charges of making a false statement over his involvement in the land corruption scandal in southern Gyeonggi Province in 2015.

The scandal over lucrative housing supply plans was a point of contention as both sides of Lee and Yoon were claimed to have been involved during their election campaign from mid-2021 to early 2022.

"As seen in the trial in the morning, (the prosecution) ceased to investigate Yoon as he denied connection with (a key suspect), and the same prosecution raided offices, probed scores of people and indicted me because I denied connection with (another key suspect)," Lee told reporters Friday at around 2:10 p.m. as he broke silence in his second appearance of the day at the Seoul Central District Court after a lunch break.

"I believe the court judges will find the prosecution unreasonable."

Lee stood trial that started 10:40 a.m.

Lee was accused of spreading false information by saying in an interview during the election campaign in December 2021 that he "did not know" a deceased suspect from a state-run company dedicated to land development in Daejang-dong, a district in southern Gyeonggi Province.

The suspect, Kim Moon-ki, had allegedly colluded with the inexperienced asset management company that reaped a huge profit from the land development project. Kim was found dead in an apparent suicide in December 2021.

Prosecutors say Lee made a false statement, based on the numerous pictures of Lee and the suspect together provided by the ruling People Power Party. Lee's attorneys counterclaimed in Friday's trial that his remarks cannot be construed as a false statement.

Moreover, Lee is also accused of falsely claiming in October 2021 that a rezoning to turn a green belt into houses in mid-2010s in Gyeonggi Province was the result of coercion by the Land Ministry. The prosecution has concluded this is false, based on an internal document created by the Land Ministry in 2014.

Lee, a former Seongnam mayor and Gyeonggi Province governor, declared his presidential bid in July 2021.

He was indicted on charges of violating the election law in September 2022. In Korea, spreading false information with the intention of getting a candidate elected is punishable by imprisonment with labor for up to five years or by a fine not exceeding 30 million won ($23,000).

Lee is expected to appear in court at least twice a month until the verdict is reached.

This is likely to deal a blow to Lee's political leadership, who narrowly averted detention on Monday as the parliament voted down the motion allowing an arrest warrant to be sought against the opposition leader. Notably, however, the voting result -- 139 in favor, 138 against, 11 invalid and nine abstained -- showed that not all of the 169 Democratic Party lawmakers voted against Lee's arrest.

Aside from election law violation charges, Lee is alleged to have solicited contributions of companies to a soccer club in exchange for their land use approval during his tenure as the Seongnam mayor and helped companies acquire business rights in North Korea when he was governor of Gyeonggi Province from 2018 to 2021.

In particular, regarding the Daejang-dong land corruption scandal, Lee is alleged to have arranged private gains from it to use the proceeds for his election campaign.