SEOUL, South Korea — The leader of a secretive religious sect that was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year received a three-year prison term on Wednesday on charges of embezzling church money.
But Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted on a charge of conspiring to impede the health authorities’ efforts to fight the virus. Mr. Lee’s prison term was suspended for four years, which means that he will remain free unless he commits a crime within that time.
The rapid spread of the virus among the church’s worshipers in Daegu, a city in the southeast, in February and early March last year had briefly made South Korea home to the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak outside China. A total of 5,213 cases have been found among church members and their contacts, according to government data.
Prosecutors arrested Mr. Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials had obstructed the government’s efforts to fight the epidemic by not fully disclosing the number of worshipers and their gathering places. Mr. Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or $5.1 million, from church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace” north of Seoul, the capital.
He was also accused of using public facilities for religious activities without permission from the local authorities.
Mr. Lee was released on bail last November. On Wednesday, a judge in the district court of Suwon, south of Seoul, ruled that a failure to provide a full list of worshipers and church facilities did not amount to impeding the government’s disease-control efforts.
Mr. Lee’s church welcomed the acquittal, but said he would appeal to a higher court to try to reverse his conviction on embezzlement and other charges.
During the trial, Mr. Lee had denied all charges against him. In an earlier statement, his church said Mr. Lee never intended to hamper the government’s efforts to control the epidemic, and had urged church members to cooperate with the health authorities.
But prosecutors demanded that the court sentence him to five years in prison.
Mr. Lee’s church has faced intense criticism from the public, and he apologized to South Koreans in March. Parents who accused the church of luring and brainwashing their children with its unorthodox teachings have called Mr. Lee a “religious con artist.” The church has dismissed the accusations as groundless.
At the peak of the outbreak spreading from the church, South Korea reported as many as 900 new cases a day. But that outbreak has been eclipsed by a new wave of infections that began spreading mainly through the populous Seoul metropolitan area in November. The country, which has a population of about 50 million people, reported a record 1,240 new cases on Christmas Day.