Samsung boss Lee, convicted for corruption, given pardon to ‘revive’ South Korea’s economy

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Billionaire Lee Jae-yong, the heir and de facto leader of the Samsung group, was granted a presidential pardon Friday, on the occasion of next week’s Liberation Day anniversary.

Lee was among 1,692 prisoners with terminal illnesses and those ending their terms to be pardoned by President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday.

However, Lee’s reprieve raised the eyebrows of many as he was convicted of bribery and embezzlement in January last year.

His release is the latest example of South Korea’s long tradition of freeing business leaders convicted of corruption on economic grounds.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said that the 54-year-old was reinstated to give him a chance to “contribute to overcoming the economic crisis” of the country.

According to Forbes, Lee is the 278th-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $7.9 billion.

In August 2021, Lee was released on parole after serving 18 months in jail, just over half of his original sentence.

But Friday’s pardon has lifted a post-prison employment restriction that had been set for five years, and it will allow him to fully return to work.

“Due to the global economic crisis, the dynamism and vitality of the national economy have deteriorated, and the economic slump is feared to be prolonged,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

The Liberation Day anniversary marks Japan’s 1945 World War II surrender, which liberated Korea from decades of colonial rule. The event is celebrated every year with the pardon of hundreds of prisoners.

What’s next for Lee?

Lee is the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest smartphone maker. The conglomerate’s overall turnover is equivalent to about one-fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product.

The pardon will allow Lee to work without restrictions. According to South Korean law, if a person is convicted of embezzlement or breach of trust worth more than 500 million Korean won ($384,101), that person cannot work for a company related to the crime for five years even after the prison sentence ends.

But he is completely free of his legal troubles. He still faces a separate trial over accusations of accounting fraud regarding a merger of two Samsung firms in 2015.

Eleven executives from Samsung, including Lee, were indicted in 2020 on charges including illegal transactions, stock manipulation, and perjury. The case is still pending.

(With inputs from agencies)

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