Samsung chief freed on parole a year early

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Samsung Chief Freed On Parole A Year Early Samsung Chief Freed On Parole A Year Early
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By Kim Tong-Hyung, AP

Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong has walked out of prison a year early in a parole decision demonstrating the conglomerate’s influence in South Korea, as well as continuing leniency for bosses who commit corporate corruption.

Wearing a grey suit and a face mask, Mr Lee left the prison near Seoul to a barrage of camera flashes and bowed in apology over the anger ignited by his bribery and embezzlement conviction, which was related to the corruption scandal that toppled South Korea’s previous president in 2017.

Hundreds of demonstrators standing behind police lines shouted slogans denouncing or welcoming his release.

“(I) caused too much concern to our people. I am very sorry,” said Mr Lee, who had spent the past months in prison relaying his business decisions through visiting employees.


Lee Jae-yong apologised for causing public concern upon being paroled from prison (AP)

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He said he was paying close attention to the “concerns, criticism and huge expectations” about him before leaving in a car, without answering reporters’ questions.

Mr Lee, 53, is the third-generation heir of a business empire that runs everything from technology, construction, and financial services companies to hospitals, an amusement park and baseball and football clubs.

The crown jewel, Samsung Electronics, singlehandedly represents about 20% of South Korea’s entire stock market value and a quarter of its total exports.

Mr Lee’s parole marked an about-face for the government of President Moon Jae-in, who after being elected in 2017 pledged to curb the excesses of “chaebol”, or South Korea’s family-owned conglomerates, and end their cosy ties with the government.


Mr Lee’s release sparked controversy (AP)

Park Soo-hyun, Mr Moon’s spokesperson, said in a statement that Mr Lee’s release benefited “national interest” and pleaded for people’s understanding.

Business leaders and key members of Mr Moon’s government had endorsed Mr Lee’s early release in recent months, citing Samsung’s vital role in South Korea’s export-driven economy and the increasing challenges it faces in the global semiconductor market.

Freeing Mr Lee became politically convenient for Mr Moon after recent polls indicated South Korea’s public – years removed from the angry protests that filled the streets with millions of demonstrators in 2016 and 2017 – largely Mr favoured Mr Lee’s release.

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With the next presidential election coming in March 2022, the ruling liberals are hoping to win votes among the millions of South Koreans who own Samsung shares, some experts say.


South Korea’s president has pleaded for understanding over the release (AP)

Samsung had no immediate comment on Mr Lee’s release.

He served a total of 18 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzling millions of dollars from corporate funds to bribe then-president Park Geun-hye to ensure her government’s support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that tightened his control over the corporate empire.

His case was part of a massive corruption scandal that triggered nationwide protests and led to the impeachment and removal of Ms Park, who has been jailed since 2017 and will not be released until 2039 if she fully serves her term.

Even with his release, Mr Lee faces further legal difficulties.

He appeared at the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday for another trial over alleged stock price manipulation, auditing violations and other financial crimes related to the 2015 merger.

His lawyers have insisted the allegations in that case were not criminal acts but were normal business activities.


Mr Lee’s legal difficulties are not over (AP)

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In including Mr Lee among some 800 prisoners who were granted paroles ahead of Sunday’s Liberation Day, which celebrates Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule at the end of the Second World War, the Justice Ministry cited unspecified economic concerns related to the pandemic and global markets.

Mr Lee runs the Samsung conglomerate in his capacity as vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, a major global provider of computer memory chips and smartphones.

Mr Lee was originally sentenced in 2017 to five years in prison on the corruption charges but was freed after 11 months in February 2018 following a Seoul high court ruling that reduced his term to two and a half year suspended sentence, overturning key convictions and reducing the amount of his bribes.

The supreme court returned the case to the high court in 2019, ruling that the amount of Lee’s bribes had been undervalued.

Mr Lee was jailed again in January this year following a retrial.

Almost no-one had expected Mr Lee to serve his full sentence through July 2022.

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