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(LEAD) Two key witnesses deny meddling in presidential election

2013/08/16 17:58

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES throughout with details of hearing, more background)

SEOUL, Aug. 16 (Yonhap) -- A former spymaster and a former Seoul police chief claimed innocence at a parliamentary hearing Friday, denying allegations that they meddled in last year's presidential election in favor of the ruling party.

Won Sei-hoon, the former chief of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), and Kim Yong-pan, the former chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, are the key witnesses in a parliamentary probe into the scandal.

Won has been accused of ordering an online smear campaign to sway public opinion in favor of the ruling Saenuri Party ahead of December's presidential election, while Kim allegedly reduced the scope of a police investigation into the scandal and whitewashed its results.

Both were indicted in June on charges of interfering in the election, prompting the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) to step up its calls for a parliamentary probe into the case.

The ruling party accepted the demand, but the investigation stalled as the rival parties wrangled over various terms of the probe. The DP took to the streets early this month in protest of what it claimed was the ruling party's attempt to sabotage the investigation. It also moved its headquarters outside to a square in front of Seoul City Hall, where it has held regular rallies demanding the truth behind the scandal.

The first hearing scheduled for Wednesday yielded no results as neither witness showed up. Won cited poor health, while Kim cited a court hearing on the same day.

The parliamentary investigative committee rescheduled the hearing for Friday and issued an order compelling the two to appear for questioning.

Kim, who arrived at the hearing at the scheduled time, refused to take an oath but answered lawmakers' questions.

Under the country's law, witnesses standing trial can refuse to give testimony in parliament if they believe that will have a negative influence on their trials.

"I do not acknowledge any of the prosecution's charges against me," Kim said. "I deny all of them."

   Near midnight three days before the Dec. 19 election, the police denied the existence of any evidence backing up the alleged smear campaign as it announced the preliminary results of its investigation into the scandal.

Critics have accused the police of helping the ruling camp by rushing to make that announcement before the election.

"I don't think (the announcement) was false," Kim said. "I don't agree that our officers made a false analysis, and I continue to trust them."

   Meanwhile, Won arrived at the hearing later in the day, saying he would not take an oath for the same reason as Kim.

Asked about the prosecution's charges against him, he said, "I don't agree with that."

   He also claimed that the alleged smear campaign was in fact part of the NIS' efforts to block pro-North Korea activists from affecting public sentiment through their online posts.

"That was not intervening in the presidential election," he said.