Secretive cult accused of virus murders
Seoul's city government has asked prosecutors to press charges, including murder, against the founder of a secretive religious sect for failing to cooperate in containing the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
South Korea has seen a surge in the number of infections - adding more than 4000 cases in less than two weeks - with about 60 per cent of the national total linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
Officials are trying to track down and test more than 266,000 people associated with the cult, which has been accused of submitting false lists of its members to authorities.
The Seoul City government said it had filed a legal complaint to prosecutors against 12 leaders of the sect - including its founder, Lee Man-hee - accusing them of homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.
"They did not take any action to encourage its members to actively cooperate with the health authorities to prevent further spread of the COVID-19," city authorities said in a statement.
In a strongly-worded Facebook post, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Shincheonji's behaviour was tantamount to "murder through wilful negligence".
"The situation is serious and urgent, but where are the leaders of the Shincheonji, including Lee Man-hee, the chief director of this crisis?" Mr Park wrote.
"If they had actively taken early measures, we could have prevented the explosive rise of COVID-19 cases in Daegu and North Gyeongbuk province and the deaths of several people."
Under South Korean law prosecutors can make their own decision on whether to act on complaints filed to them, and Yonhap news agency reported that the Seoul City request had been assigned for investigation.
Shincheonji declined to comment on the investigation issued a statement saying it was committed to containing the virus.
"The most important thing for us now is disinfecting and our highest priority is to end the COVID-19 outbreak soon," it said.
The outbreak among Shincheonji members began when a church delegation held a conference in Wuhan - the Chinese city where the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 originated.
A 61-year-old female delegation member, described by authorities as a superspreader, was the first to fall ill. She developed a fever on February 10 but went on to attend at least four church services in Daegu - the country's fourth-largest city and epicentre of its outbreak - before being diagnosed.
The organisation has apologised on behalf of its members who have not answered survey calls but has insisted that it has been fully cooperating with the government to contain the virus.
Shincheonji, founded in 1984, proclaims Lee has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgment.
But with more church members than available places in heaven, they are said to have to compete for slots and pursue converts.
Shincheonji has a number of members who are foreign nationals and at least two branches in Sydney.