Hundreds of followers of a religious sect submitted on Wednesday to a search of their rural commune by South Korean authorities seeking the arrest of the head of the family that operated a ferry which capsized last month killing more than 300 people.
The sect’s leader Yoo Byung-un is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centreed around I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran the shipping company Chonghaejin Marine.
Believed to be in his 70s, Yoo is the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church that runs the sprawling Anseong compound about two hours south of Seoul.
Arrest warrants have been issued for his two sons, the younger of which is believed to be in the United States.
On Tuesday, prosecutors conceded they had no confirmation of the whereabouts of Yoo or his eldest son, and said they were probably no longer in the Anseong commune.
Followers had prevented the authorities, armed with court warrants, from entering the compound earlier by staging a sit-in at the gate. They said they had nothing to hide and have accused the government of religious persecution.
“We will prove that our dear brother Yoo Byung-un is not an evil man and that he has lived as a role model citizen of this country practicing the love of Jesus Christ,” a spokesman for the group Lee Tae-jong said at the compound gate.
Members of the sect grow organic produce and run a freshwater fish farm at Anseong, and Yoo also has a photography workshop there.
Prosecutors have raided a house believed to be Yoo’s in Seoul and other locations where he was thought to be holed up evading summons to appear for questioning.
The Sewel ferry, massively overloaded with cargo and without enough water in the ballast tanks to keep steady, capsized on April 16 during a routine journey from the mainland port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.
Most of the victims were children and their teachers on a field trip from a high school on the outskirts of Seoul.
All 15 surviving crew members were indicted last week, including the captain and three senior crew members on homicide charges. The remaining 11 crew were indicted for negligence.
The prosecution said the ferry was structurally defective after a remodelling to add capacity and was massively overloaded with cargo.
The elder Yoo was once jailed for fraud in the 1990s but was cleared of complicity in the suicides of 32 workers of a company linked to his church in 1987.