SEOUL - A South Korean court Thursday dismissed an arrest warrant request for the head of the Samsung Group, in a case that could affect the impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye.
Jay Y. Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. was held for 14 hours in a detention facility before the Seoul Central District Court ruled there was not enough evidence at this time to justify prosecutors’ charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury.
The judge released a statement saying, “After reviewing the contents and the process of the investigation so far, it is difficult to acknowledge the necessity and substantiality of an arrest at the current stage.”
The prosecutors’ office responded: “The court’s decision to reject arrest warrant is very regrettable, but we will steadily continue the investigation by taking necessary measures,” said Lee Kyu-chul, a spokesman for the office.
Lee is suspected of paying Park’s influential friend Choi Soon-sil $36 million in return for the president’s help to secure the approval of a state-run pension fund for a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates. The pay-off allegedly took the form of donations to support the equestrian training of Chung Yoo-ra, Choi’s daughter and to two dubious nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.
The South Korean National Pension Service chairman Moon Hyung-pyo was arrested earlier this week on charges of abuse of power and giving false testimony in the Samsung case.
After being released early Thursday morning, Lee declined to comment. The Samsung group had admitted to making the contributions, but denied there was any deal made to receive favorable treatment in return.
Lee became the head of the world’s largest smartphone maker in October, filling a vacuum left by his ailing father, who suffered a heart attack in 2014.
The court’s decision on the Samsung case could be a setback for prosecutors in the presidential impeachment trial also underway. The Samsung case, if proved, could have provided the court with a clear example of how Park’s associates sold presidential influence for personal gain.
Park stands accused of colluding with Choi and some of her closest aides to force Samsung and other powerful Korean conglomerates to donate more than $65 million to the two dubious foundations by holding out promises of favorable treatment or by using the threat of tax audits. Choi reportedly funneled some of the funds to her private companies and to side contracts for friends.
Park has denied the charges against her. She maintains that the actions she took in support of the foundations were in the national interest, and insists she never personally benefited during her 18 years of public service. She also voiced regret and apologies for not being aware that some of her close associates may have been involved in some wrongdoings.
Burden of proof
However, the Constitutional Court recently reminded Park’s team that an impeachment inquiry does not use the same presumption of innocence standard as is used in a criminal trial. Park’s defense lawyers were warned last week that efforts to delay and impede the proceeding could undermine their case.
“There is pretty much a presumption of guilt, so that is perhaps unfair to the president. But by refusing to really cooperate with this proceeding, the president and her defense team have really tested the patience of the Constitutional Court,” said Koo Se-wong, the editor of Korea Expose, an online Korean news and opinion site.
The Constitutional Court accelerated the impeachment proceedings this week.
Choi finally appeared as a witness after refusing past summons to testify. She denied all the charges against her and the president. And she accused the prosecution of using coercive methods to force her to confess. When asked about Park possibly granting special favors to her or anyone, she said, “The president is not such a person.” Choi is also on trial for her part in the alleged influence peddling scheme.
Two key aides to the president, who have been implicated in this scandal, have reportedly gone into hiding. In their absence, the Constitutional Court is allowing previous testimony or statements from witnesses made to the prosecutors in the course of their investigation.
“It means that these witnesses need not be compelled to show up at the Constitutional Court to get new testimonies. The court will simply rely on past statements given to the prosecutors to make their ruling,” said Koo.
The judges on the Constitutional Court are reportedly eager to conclude the proceedings and reach a verdict, while they still have a strong chance to reach the six votes required for a ruling. The nine-member body will lose one judge at the end of January and two more in March as their terms run out. While Park remains suspended from office during the impeachment proceeding, no new judges can be added to the court.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.