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(4th LD) Seoul court denies extradition of Chinese arson suspect to Japan
SEOUL, Jan. 4 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul court has decided not to extradite a Chinese man to Japan for punishment for an arson attack at a controversial World War II shrine in Tokyo, saying that the crime he had committed was politically motivated.

   Japan asked South Korea to hand over Liu Qiang, 38, who had served a 10-month prison term in Seoul for a separate attack at the Japanese embassy in South Korea earlier last year, so that he could stand trial for the arson attack.

   The South Korean court proceedings were closely watched after Beijing also asked Seoul to allow him to return home, arguing that the alleged arson attack in Tokyo was not personally motivated.

   Sandwiched between the two neighbors, the Seoul government decided to resolve the dispute through a court ruling. South Korea has extradition treaties with both China and Japan.

   Liu, who is currently detained in a Seoul prison, will be released, according to court officials. He is expected to head back home voluntarily.

   "Not only extraditing Liu Qiang, who had committed the political crime, to Japan goes against the political order of the Republic of Korea and the Constitution, but also is denying the universal value of most of the civilized countries," Judge Hwang Han-sik of the Seoul High Court said Thursday in a ruling.

   The judge also said the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, at which Liu hurled Molotov cocktails, is the property of a religious group in legal terms but that it holds a political symbol where Japan's World War II criminals are enshrined.

   South Korea and China view the shrine __ which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals __ as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression.

   Lee Hong-cheol, a South Korean lawyer who represented Liu, welcomed the court ruling, reiterating that the Chinese man did not commit the crime for personal reasons.

   South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it respected the court ruling.

   Japan lodged a protest over the court ruling against South Korea's foreign ministry and demanded that Seoul hand over Liu by faithfully implementing an extradition treaty with Japan, a Japanese embassy official in Seoul told Yonhap news agency late Thursday. He asked not to be identified, citing the issue's sensitivity.

   There was no immediate response from China.

   The court ruling came a day before a trip to South Korea by a special envoy of Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

   The Chinese man fled to South Korea after launching the arson attack in Tokyo in December 2011. In Seoul, he made the Japanese Embassy his new target and hurled fire bombs into the compounds.

   He was arrested at the scene and subsequently sentenced to 10 months in prison. He testified in court that he was angry at Japan because it continues to refuse to apologize for its wartime atrocities. He said his grandmother was one of the many Asian women forced by Japan to serve as sex slaves for its front-line soldiers.

   Liu also testified that his grandfather worked with Xi Zhongxun, father of China's new top leader Xi Jinping, in a guerrilla campaign against Japanese occupational forces in the early 20th century, according to court documents.

   During interrogation by South Korean police, Liu confessed to the arson attack in Tokyo, prompting the Japanese government to demand his extradition.

   South Korea kept Liu in detention pending the outcome of the extradition trial.