Samsung heir and de-facto head Jay Y. Lee has been released from prison on parole after serving 18 months of a 30-month sentence, in a controversial move the government described as being in the country’s interest.
There had been concerns that without Lee’s presence major decisions were not being made at Samsung, which was founded by Lee’s grandfather. Lee has been de facto head of the company since 2014.
The US Chamber of Commerce had pressured South Korea to release Lee, with American businesses arguing his presence was vital to help ease a global semiconductor shortage, while the office of South Korean president Moon Jae-in cited the “severe crisis” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But civic groups criticised Lee’s parole as another sign that the leniency shown to the country’s business elite undermines the rule of law.
Lee, 53, who serves as Samsung’s vice-chairman, appeared outside the Seoul Detention Centre on Friday looking noticeably thinner than when he entered it in January, after being convicted of bribery and embezzlement.
“I’ve caused much concern for the people. I deeply apologise,” he told journalists.
“I am listening to the concerns, criticisms, worries and high expectations for me. I will work hard.”
Following his release he travelled directly to Samsung’s headquarters.
Lee was accused of paying 43 billion won ($37.7m; £26.7m) to two non-profit foundations operated by a friend of former president Park Guen-hye in exchange for political support.
The court ruled that Lee “actively provided bribes and implicitly asked the president to use her power to help his smooth succession” at the head of Samsung.
The Justice Ministry said it decided to release Lee after considering the effects of the pandemic on South Korea’s economy and the global semiconductor industry.
In a statement, president Moon’s office asked for understanding.
“We are well aware that there are supporting and opposing views on vice-chairman Jay Y. Lee’s parole. The views of the people who are opposed are also right,” the statement said.
“On the other hand, there have been many people who called for his parole in this severe crisis, hoping that he will help the country with respect to semiconductors and vaccines.”
Lee is expected to make the final call on the location of a $17bn US plant to produce advanced logic chips, amongst other decisions.
Lee initially served one year of a five-year sentence from August 2017, which was later suspended. The court decision was then overturned and he returned to jail in January for a shorter sentence.
The Justice Ministry last month reduced eligibility guidelines for parole to about 60 percent of term served.
Lee is separately on trial over charges of accounting fraud and stock price manipulation connected to a 2015 merger of two Samsung companies.
The first hearing in another separate case, in which he is accused of unlawfully using a sedative, is expected on 7 September.
Lee has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
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