Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of South Korean electronics giant Samsung, was released from prison on parole Friday after serving around 18 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzlement and bribery of former President Park Geun-hye.
Lee, 53, left the Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, just south of the capital city, on Friday morning as groups of supporters, protesters and reporters waited.
“I apologize for causing people great concern,” Lee said in remarks translated by news agency Yonhap. “I am well aware of those concerns, criticisms and expectations of me.”
Lee was on a list of 810 prisoners who were paroled by the justice ministry earlier this week on the occasion of Liberation Day, a national holiday that falls on Aug. 15.
The ministry’s parole committee pointed to the overcrowding of correctional facilities during an ongoing COVID-19 surge in the country as one of the reasons that it granted a higher number of paroles this year, in a statement released on Monday.
The ministry singled out Lee, saying he was included “in consideration of the national economic situation and the global economic environment due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The parole of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was decided by comprehensively considering various factors such as public opinion and [Lee’s] behavior and attitude,” the ministry added.
Business leaders had been lobbying for the parole or pardon of Lee, citing the outsized importance of Samsung on South Korea’s export-driven economy, particularly in crucial global sectors such as semiconductors and memory chips. The company is South Korea’s largest conglomerate, accounting for around 20% of the country’s stock market value.
The public has also generally been in favor of Lee’s early release, with about 70% supporting it, according to one poll released in late July.
However, activists and labor unions have been vocal in their opposition, claiming the parole represents the preferential treatment that powerful business leaders have long enjoyed in South Korea’s justice system.
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A coalition of over 1,000 groups issued a joint statement against his release last week, while demonstrators protested outside the prison and in downtown Seoul on Friday.
Park Seok-woon, chairman of the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements, called Lee’s release “absolutely audacious and lawless,” at a rally near the presidential Blue House.
“The constitutional rule of law is being destroyed,” he said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Friday that he understood the perspective of those opposing Lee’s release, but pointed to the many who were requesting his parole in the hopes it would help boost the semiconductor industry as well as aid in domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We accept it as a choice for the national interest, and I hope that the people will also understand it,” Moon said in a statement delivered by Blue House spokesman Park Soo-hyun.
Lee was originally convicted in 2017 on bribery and embezzlement charges connected to the corruption scandal that ultimately led to Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. He received a five-year sentence, but a retrial in Feb. 2018 reduced the term to 30 months.
The Samsung heir, son of late chairman Lee Kun-hee, is not immediately eligible to return to the helm of the company, however, as the law dictates a five-year employment ban for those convicted of major financial crimes. He will need permission from the justice ministry to formally get back to work, a move some observers expect to be forthcoming.
Lee’s legal troubles are not over, either. He is facing separate trials on charges connected to the controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates and for allegedly receiving illegal injections of the sedative propofol.
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