SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The de facto leader of Samsung secured a pardon Friday for his conviction for bribing a former president in a corruption scandal that toppled a previous South Korean government, a leniency that underscored the tech company’s huge influence on the nation.
Lee Jae-yong’s pardon is partly symbolic since he was released on parole a year ago after serving 18 months in prison that was due to end in July, and critics say the billionaire has remained in control of Samsung even while behind bars. Still, the pardon will allow the e-motor heir to fully resume his leadership duties and could make it easier for the company to pursue investments and mergers.
The Justice Ministry said President Yoon Suk Yeol, who as a prosecutor investigated the corruption scandal involving Lee, will grant the pardon on Monday, a national holiday when about 1,700 people will receive clemency, including other top business leaders. .
Lee, 54, was convicted in 2017 of bribing former President Park Geun-hye and her close aides to win government support for a merger between two Samsung subsidiaries that strengthened Lee’s control over the corporate empire. . Park and a confidant were also convicted in the scandal, which enraged South Koreans, who staged mass protests for months demanding an end to shady ties between business and politics. The demonstrations eventually led to Park’s removal from office.
While some civic groups criticized the decision, recent opinion polls have shown that South Koreans — years removed from protests in 2016 and 2017 — overwhelmingly favored pardoning Lee. This reflects the continued hold Samsung has in a country where it not only makes smartphones and televisions, but also issues credit cards, builds luxury apartment buildings and runs the country’s most sought-after hospital.
Business leaders and politicians had also called for Lee’s pardon, which they said would allow Samsung, one of the world’s biggest makers of computer memory chips and smartphones, to be bolder and faster. in business decisions by fully restoring his rights to run the business empire.
Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the business magnates’ pardons were aimed at “overcoming the economic crisis by encouraging business activity” at a time when South Koreans are grappling with rising prices, high personal debt and a market oscillating work.
Lee’s detractors say he has already fully resumed his leadership duties after being released on parole – even though South Korean law bars people convicted of major financial crimes from returning to work for five years after completing their sentences. Former Justice Minister Park Beom-kye defended Lee’s involvement in Samsung’s management, insisting that his activities were not in violation of the ban because the billionaire did not receive salaries from Samsung.
In a statement released through Samsung, Lee said he was grateful for “getting an opportunity to start over.”
“I want to express my apologies for causing inconvenience to many people due to my shortcomings. I will work even harder to fulfill my responsibilities and duties as a businessman,” said Lee.
Lee still faces a separate trial on charges of stock price manipulation and audit violations related to the 2015 merger.
Among others to be pardoned is Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who received a suspended prison sentence in 2018 on similar bribery charges to Park, who was pardoned by then-President Moon Jae-in in December. Dongkuk Steel Mill chairman Chang Sae-joo and former STX group chairman Kang Duk-soo will also receive pardons.
A coalition of civic groups, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, issued a statement criticizing the move to pardon business executives, accusing Yoon of cozying up to “chaebol,” referring to the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the economy. of the country.
“President Yoon Suk Yeol’s sale (of the business) sends a signal to chaebol bosses that they are free to commit all the crimes they want,” the groups said, accusing Yoon of undermining the rule of law.
Former President Park was convicted of a wide range of corruption crimes, including colluding with her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to take millions of dollars in bribes and extortion from Samsung and other major companies while she was in power. was on duty.
She faced more than two decades in prison before Moon pardoned her in December, citing the need to promote unity in the politically divided nation. Choi remains in prison. Chang, of Dongkuk Steel Mill, was released on parole in 2018 with about six months left on a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges that he embezzled millions of dollars in corporate funds and used some of them to gamble gambling in las vegas.
South Korea’s Supreme Court last year upheld a suspended prison sentence for Kang, who ran STX from 2003 to 2014, on charges of embezzling corporate funds and other crimes.
A notable exception to Yoon’s pardons was former president Lee Myung-bak, who in June was granted parole from a 17-year prison sentence after prosecutors acknowledged his health problems.
Han, the justice minister, said the government this time did not consider pardoning any convicted politicians or government employees, saying the focus was on the economy.
Lee, a CEO-turned-conservative hero before his fall from grace, was convicted of taking bribes from big businesses including Samsung, embezzling funds from a company he owned and other corruption-related crimes before and during his presidency. his from 2008 to 2013. .