Monday, Mar 27, 2017

Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong arrested in bribery probe

SEOUL (AFP): The heir of South Korean company Samsung has been arrested as part of an investigation into corruption and influence-peddling that caused President Park Geun-hye to be impeached.

The Seoul Central District Court's decision on Friday to issue a warrant to arrest Lee Jae-yong, 48, makes him the first leader in Samsung's history to be arrested on criminal charges. Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and son of the Samsung group head Lee Kun-hee, is accused of paying nearly $40m in bribes to Park's secret confidante to secure policy favours.

"It is acknowledged that it is necessary to arrest [Lee] in light of a newly added criminal charge and new evidence," a court spokesman said in a statement on Friday. He was already being held at a detention centre after appearing in court on Thursday as judges deliberated whether to issue an arrest warrant. Samsung is South Korea's largest business group and its revenue is equivalent to about a fifth of the country's GDP.

Second arrest bid

Lee had been interrogated several times over his alleged role in the scandal that has rocked South Korea in recent months. He had narrowly avoided being formally arrested last month, after the court ruled there was insufficient evidence.

But prosecutors on Tuesday made a second bid for his arrest, saying they had collected more evidence in recent weeks. His arrest is likely to send shock waves through the group, which is a major part of the South Korean economy. Samsung Electronics, the world's largest smartphone maker, is already reeling from the debacle over the recall of its Galaxy Note 7 device and reports have suggested it could face sanctions from overseas authorities if Lee is punished.

The scandal centres on Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of using her close ties with Park to force local firms to "donate" nearly $70m to non-profit foundations which Choi allegedly used for personal gain. Samsung was the single biggest donor to the foundations. It is also accused of separately giving millions of euros to Choi to bankroll her daughter's equestrian training in Germany. The court is also deliberating an arrest warrant for another Samsung executive, who is also the head of Korea Equestrian Federation, over bribery charges.

Controversial merger

Samsung said in a statement on Wednesday it had "not paid bribes nor made improper requests to the president seeking favours". Lee has effectively taken the helm of Samsung since his father suffered a heart attack in 2014.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Samsung had paid Choi to secure state approval for the controversial merger of two Samsung units seen as a key step towards ensuring a smooth power transfer to Lee. The merger in 2015 of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries was opposed by many investors who said it wilfully undervalued the former unit's shares. But the deal went through after Seoul's state pension fund - a major Samsung shareholder - approved it.

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