A Seoul court on Thursday rejected an arrest warrant sought for Lee Jae-yong, Samsung Group's de facto leader, dealing a blow to investigators who have been accelerating the probe into an influence-peddling scandal centered on President Park Geun-hye and her friend.
|Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., walks out of a detention center in Uiwang, south of Seoul, on Jan. 19, 2017. (Yonhap)|
On Monday, an independent counsel team looking into the scandal announced that it sought the warrant against Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., on charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury.
As the Seoul Central District court declined the request, Lee has avoided becoming the first senior executive in the country to be arrested following the outbreak of the scandal in late October.
"It is hard to find a reason, necessity and appropriateness for the arrest at the current stage," the court said, pointing out that key issues, such as whether the money was for any kind of reciprocal favors, are still debated.
After the request for the warrant was rejected, Lee left a detention center in Uiwang, south of Seoul, where he stayed for some 14 hours pending the court's decision.
Lee remained silent when reporters hurled a volley of questions, including whether he feels a moral responsibility for the bribery allegations.
The special probe team expressed strong regret over the court's refusal to issue the warrant, vowing to craft "necessary" measures and "unwaveringly" continue its probe.
"The court's decision to reject the request for the warrant appears to be attributable to the difference in our views over the legal review of the charges. It is very regrettable," the team's spokesman Lee Kyu-chul told reporters.
The team plans to consider all options such as seeking the arrest warrant again or investigating Lee without detention.
Investigators suspect that Lee gave or promised some 43 billion won (US$36.3 million) worth of bribes to Park's jailed friend Choi Soon-sil in return for the state-run pension fund's backing of a merger of two Samsung affiliates.
The probe team's spokesman said this week the kickbacks given to Choi were tantamount to bribes to Park, adding there is enough evidence to prove that the two shared profits.
The merger was seen as critical for the smooth management succession of the group from ailing Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee to his only son Jae-yong.
The younger Lee became a board member of Samsung Electronics, the world's largest smartphone maker, in October, and his father has been hospitalized since suffering a heart attack in 2014.
The business group has admitted to making contributions to two foundations allegedly controlled by Choi and her Germany-based firm, but denied such contributions were related to the 2015 merger.
During a regular press briefing Thursday, the spokesman Lee said the team will carry out its investigation into other conglomerates who gave money to the controversial foundations as planned, regardless of the court's decision on the warrant request.
He said their position to conduct the investigation into other Samsung executives, including Vice Chairman Choi Gee-sung, without detention remains unchanged. The Vice Chairman Choi has been booked as a suspect on charges of bribery, the spokesman added.
It also plans to question President Park, who is awaiting the Constitutional Court's decision on her impeachment, in the near future. Lee said a face-to-face interrogation will take place by the beginning of February at the latest.
Park and Choi have both denied all charges of colluding to extort money from big businesses and rejected allegations of influence peddling. The president, who was stripped of her executive powers by parliament on Dec. 9, said she will prove her innocence in court.
Meanwhile, President Park did not make a public comment, while her aides said the presidential office will focus on preparing for the ongoing probe and impeachment trial.
"Regardless of the court's decision (on the warrant), (the president) will calmly prepare to clear the suspicions raised against her," Park's aide told Yonhap News Agency over the phone, declining to be named.