Coronavirus: South Korea sect leader Lee Man-hee arrested over COVID-19 outbreak

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, in Seoul, South Korea.
People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, in Seoul, South Korea. Photo credit: Reuters

South Korean authorities have arrested the founder of a secretive Christian sect at the centre of the country's largest outbreak of COVID-19 infections for allegedly hiding crucial information from contact-tracers and other offences.

Lee Man-hee is the powerful head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is linked to more than 5200 coronavirus infections, or 36 percent of South Korea's total cases.

Prosecutors allege the 89-year-old conspired with other sect leaders to withhold information from authorities during the peak of the outbreak among his more than 200,000 followers.

Lee, who has described the novel coronavirus as the "devil's deed" to stop the sect's growth, allegedly hid details on members and their meeting places as authorities tried to trace infection routes in February, Yonhap news agency reported.

Lee is also suspected of embezzling about 5.6 billion won (NZ$7.07 million) in church funds, including about 5 billion won (NZ$6.3 million) which he allegedly used to build a retreat, Yonhap said.

The sect said in a statement that Lee was concerned about government demands for members' personal information but never tried to hide anything.

Lee was arrested immediately on Saturday (local time) after a court in Suwon District, south of Seoul, approved the warrant.

A prosecution official could not be reached outside of office hours.

Reuters

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