By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea's top court on Tuesday ruled against a parliamentary vote to impeach the interior minister over a botched government response to a deadly Halloween crush in Seoul last year, sparking anger and dismay among relatives of the victims.
Amid a heavy police presence at the constitutional court, some relatives attending the hearing broke down in tears after the ruling, with two mothers collapsing and taken away by an ambulance, according to a Reuters witness.
Lawmakers in February voted to impeach minister Lee Sang-min, urging him to take responsibility for the failures over the response to a crowd surge that killed 159 people, many in their 20s, in a popular nightlife district in Seoul.
"This disastrous incident was not caused and exacerbated by a single cause or person," Lee Jong-seok, a justice at the court said, adding that different government agencies did not have the ability to respond in a united manner to large-scale disasters.
While the court found the minister had made remarks that were inappropriate, it said in a statement they did not amount to grounds for impeachment and ruled he had not neglected his duties. The decision was unanimous, the court said.
Lee, who did not attend the court, said after the ruling it was time to unite and stop "wasteful political strife" around the disaster, news agency Yonhap reported.
Dozens of relatives and supporters gathered in front of the court chanting "condemn the constitutional court that gave immunity to Lee Sang-min!"
Choi Sun-mi, the mother of Park Ga-young, one of the victims, described the court ruling as "truly devastating."
"Our children, young people are living in a place that is not safe to even walk," said Choi, whose hands were shaking as she choked back tears.
President Yoon Suk Yeol had rejected the opposition's demand that he sack Lee. His office and ruling party denounced the Democrats and accused them of abusing their majority power to press ahead with the impeachment.
In June, the opposition-led National Assembly decided to fast-track a bill aimed at launching an independent probe into the Itaewon crowd crush.
The Itaewon district in South Korea’s capital is known to revellers as a place of fun, freedom and openness. But its narrow, steep streets and constrained access points proved a lethal mix for Halloween partygoers who became trapped and crushed.
(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Ju-min ParkEditing by Ed Davies and Lincoln Feast)