Asia Today: South Korean prosecutors question church leader


SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korean prosecutors on Friday questioned the leader of a secretive church sect over accusations it hampered the government’s anti-virus response after thousands of COVID-19 infections were detected among its members in February and March.

Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was questioned for about four hours at a district prosecutors’ office in Suwon, south of Seoul, before being sent home after he complained about unspecified health problems, prosecution and church officials said. Hwang Seong-hyeon, a prosecutor in Suwon, said his office plans to summon Lee again for further questioning over the possibility that the church violated the country’s infectious disease law.

Lee and other Shincheonji leaders have faced suspicions of hiding some of the church’s membership and under-reporting its worship activities to health authorities to avoid broader quarantines. Prosecutors last week arrested three senior members of the church over the allegations. Lee and Shincheonji have steadfastly denied the accusation.

More than 5,200 of South Korea’s 13,672 cases have been linked to the church. Its branch in the southern city of Daegu became the biggest cluster after infections spiked in late February.

Health authorities used an aggressive test-and-quarantine program to contain the outbreak in Daegu and nearby towns by April, but the country has seen a resurgence of the virus in the Seoul area since late May as people increasingly venture out in public.

Senior Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said the spread of the coronavirus is stabilizing in the Seoul area and other major cities.

The 60 new cases reported Friday included 39 linked to people arriving from abroad. The country is enforcing two-week quarantines for all people arriving from overseas.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

– India crossed 1 million coronavirus cases on Friday, prompting concerns about its readiness to confront an inevitable surge that could overwhelm hospitals and test its feeble health care system. A surge of 34,956 cases in the past 24 hours took the confirmed total to 1,003,832. The Health Ministry also reported a record 687 deaths for a total of 25,602. The grim milestone comes at a time when several Indian states are imposing focused lockdowns to stem the outbreak amid frantic efforts by local governments to protect the economy.

– Another 293 people were confirmed infected in Tokyo on Friday, the second straight daily high in Japan’s capital. “We have asked people and businesses to raise their alert levels,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said, urging social distancing, disinfecting of hands and other measures. The city is working to increase its testing capacity and Koike said it is boosting the ability of hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. Japan has so far avoided the massive cases of the hardest hit nations, with fewer than 24,000 confirmed cases and about 1,000 deaths. It has been trying to keep economic activity while avoiding the virus’s spread, a precarious balancing act of opening restaurants and theaters with limited seating, and having store clerks work behind plastic shielding.

– Further restrictions are being imposed on the northwestern Chinese city of Xinjiang following a cluster of new cases. Airlines say passengers departing the city’s airport are required to show a negative test for coronavirus and a mobile phone record showing they have a clean bill of health. The main subway line linking the city to the airport has also been shut, some residential communities closed off and restrictions imposed on use of public transport. The health department in the surrounding region of Xinjiang says six confirmed cases have been reported over the past 24 hours, along with 11 cases where people have tested positive but are showing no symptoms. The other cases reported in mainland China were all imported. Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority and has long been blanketed with extreme security.

– China on Friday began requiring those arriving on the mainland from Hong Kong show a negative coronavirus test taken within the previous three days and undergo 14 days of supervised quarantine, following a new outbreak in the semi-autonomous region. Notable exceptions include students and truck drivers who must cross the border daily, along with “important business people,” according to the official notice. Hong Kong reported 67 new infections on Thursday, a daily high. Authorities said 63 were locally transmitted and they could not trace the source of 35 of them.

– Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state reported a new high of 428 cases, as New South Wales state announced stricter measures after a spike in new virus cases. Most of Victoria’s new cases and three deaths reported on Friday were in the nation’s second-largest city, Melbourne, which has been locked down since last week. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the government was increasing the number of testing sites outside Melbourne. There are currently 50 testing sites in regional Victoria. Eight new cases were detected in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said customer limits currently imposed on pubs would be extended to restaurants, cafes, clubs and other hospitality venues from next Friday. The state’s largest cluster, now around 42 cases, began in a Sydney pub. Other parts of Australia have been lifting restrictions.

– Two U.S. diplomats are among five new coronavirus cases in Cambodia announced Friday. All five patients had traveled from the United States. Three are Cambodians who arrived via Taiwan, the Health Ministry said. It said the two Americans are senior diplomats who had flown from the U.S. via South Korea and are being isolated at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. An embassy spokesman declined to provide immediate comment or details. Cambodia banned virtually all new arrivals in March but last month eased the rules, allowing the repatriation of more Cambodians and the tightly restricted entry of foreigners. It has had 171 confirmed cases with no deaths.

A health worker screens residents for COVID-19 symptoms in Mumbai, India, Friday, July 17, 2020. India crossed 1 million coronavirus cases on Friday, third only to the United States and Brazil, prompting concerns about its readiness to confront an inevitable surge that could overwhelm hospitals and test the country’s feeble health care system. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)