Prosecutors speed up probe into ex-top court chief

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Jan 13, 2019 - 17:42
  • Updated : Jan 13, 2019 - 17:55

Prosecutors are expected to summon former Supreme Court Justice Yang Sung-tae for questioning again this week and to decide soon whether to seek an arrest warrant for him in connection with a power abuse scandal. 

Yang was interrogated for nearly 15 hours on Friday at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office as part of a probe into allegations that he sought to influence politically significant trials and put justices at a career disadvantage if they were critical of his policies.

Prosecutors are planning to question Yang further this week in closed-door sessions for safety reasons. After wrapping up the investigation, they are expected to decide whether to indict him and whether to ask the court to issue a warrant for his arrest.

The prosecution allegedly has obtained sufficient evidence to arrest Yang.

Prosecutors are said to have secured a senior judge’s notebook documenting orders from the senior judge’s superiors, as well as orders from Yang, to intervene in trials. Other evidence that could implicate Yang includes a blacklist of judges drawn up by court officials, as well as a document produced by law firm Kim & Chang detailing Yang’s discussions with the firm’s lawyer, who represented South Korean plaintiffs seeking damages from Japanese companies that forced them into labor before and during World War II.

During the interrogation, Yang has reportedly denied having any recollection of what happened, or has said it was working-level officials who engaged in misconduct without his involvement.

Before heading into the grilling session Friday, Yang apologized to the public for “causing concern,” but denied allegations that the judiciary had interfered in trials to curry favor with the administration of former President Park Geun-hye.

If arrested, Yang would be the first former or incumbent chief of the country’s Supreme Court to be arrested. He was the first to face questioning by the prosecution as a criminal suspect.

Yang, who headed the country’s top court from 2011 to September 2017, is facing 40 charges, including abuse of power, leaking state secrets and dereliction of duty.

Prosecutors suspect Yang of using trials as bargaining chips to win support from the Park administration to establish a separate court of appeals. To advance this objective, he is accused of pressuring judges in charge of politically significant trials to deliver verdicts in the Park administration’s favor and of professionally penalizing judges who opposed Yang’s way of managing the court.

One of the high-profile cases in which Yang is suspected of interfering involved Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Yang is suspected of having intentionally delayed the deliberation of a lawsuit filed by the victims, mindful of the Park administration’s wishes to mend ties with Japan.

On Yang’s watch, the Supreme Court also allegedly collected inside intelligence from the Constitutional Court to keep it in check, covered up irregularities involving judges and interfered with the trial of Won Sei-hoon, a former spy chief accused of leading an online campaign to help then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye win the 2012 election.