Jay Lee, 48, may still be charged as the special prosecutor’s office said it could pursue the case but at the moment he is not looking like he will have to go on an all porridge diet. The South Korean system means that once you have been arrested you are locked up until your trial.
The judge said in a statement on his ruling that an arrest was not necessary – for now.
“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,” he said.
If the special prosecutor gets its way Lee will face the same charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury, just will not try to lock him up before the trial.
The special prosecutor’s office said it would be continuing its probe but had not decided whether to make another arrest warrant request, and the setback would not change its plans to investigate other conglomerates.
Spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said the prosecution was unconvinced by the Samsung chief’s argument that he was a victim of coercion due to pressure from Park.
The spokesman also said Samsung Group Vice Chairman Choi Gee-sung had been classified as a suspect on suspicion of bribery, but did not elaborate further. Two other Samsung officials, Choi’s deputy Chang Choong-ki and Samsung Electronics executive Park Sang-jin, were also under investigation.
The office has accused Lee of paying multi-million dollar bribes to Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the heart of the scandal, to win support from the National Pension Service for a controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung Group affiliates.
The merger helped cement Lee’s control over the smartphones-to-biopharmaceuticals business empire. He has denied it all.
Samsung said in an emailed statement that it appreciated “the fact that the merits of this case can now be determined without the need for detention”.
However, the case has highlighted the sharp division between how the system treats big business people and how it deals with the great unwashed.
The public is muttering that the law is not equal for all and if you run a big corporate you can get away with anything.