February 16, 2017 / 12:45 AM / 9 months ago

After day in South Korea court, Samsung chief awaits arrest decision

SEOUL (Reuters) - Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee left a Seoul court after more than eight hours on Thursday to await a decision on whether he will be arrested over his alleged role in a corruption scandal that has engulfed President Park Geun-hye.

Samsung Group chief, Jay Y. Lee, arrives at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, February 16, 2017. Koo Yoon-sung/News1 via REUTERS

The 48-year-old Lee, wearing a dark coat and navy tie, kept his head down and did not answer reporters’ questions as he left the Seoul Central District Court after the closed-door hearing, and headed to a detention centre pending a judge’s ruling.

A decision may come late on Thursday or early Friday, based on previous instances. Last month, the same court rejected the special prosecutor’s request that Lee be arrested.

“The basic relationship of the facts and the structure of the argument were not very different from the previous warrant,” one of Lee’s lawyers, Song Wu-cheol, told reporters outside the court.

“I believe the court will make a wise decision,” he said.

The corruption scandal erupted late last year and has engulfed South Korea’s political and business elite.

Park was impeached by parliament in December over accusations that she colluded with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back the president’s policy initiatives.

Park has been stripped of her powers while the Constitutional Court decides whether to uphold her impeachment. The court said on Thursday it planned to wrap up hearings in the case by Feb. 24.

Park has denied wrongdoing, as has her friend, Choi.

The special prosecutor’s office has focused its investigations on Samsung Group’s [SAGR.UL] relationship with Park.

Lee and the Samsung Group deny any wrongdoing.

‘NEVER BRIBED’

Prosecutors accuse Lee in his capacity as the head of South Korea’s largest conglomerate of pledging 43 billion won ($37.7 million) to a business and organisations backed by Choi in exchange for support of a 2015 merger of two Samsung companies.

That funding includes Samsung’s sponsorship of the equestrian career of Choi’s daughter, who is in detention in Denmark after being sought by South Korean authorities, prosecutors say.

They are also seeking the arrest of the president of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, Park Sang-jin, who also heads the Korea Equestrian Federation and attended Thursday’s hearing with Lee.

In January, the court rejected the prosecution’s request for an arrest warrant for Lee.

But a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday it had since then expanded the charges against Lee to include hiding the proceeds of a criminal act, as well as bribery, embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury.

On Wednesday, Samsung Group repeated an earlier denial on its official Twitter account: “Samsung has absolutely never bribed the president seeking something in return or sought illicit favours.”

“We will do our best for the truth to be revealed in court,” it said.

If Lee is arrested it could deal a serious blow to Samsung, the world’s biggest maker of smartphones, memory chips and flat-screen televisions, potentially hampering strategic decision-making such as new investments and acquisitions.

Park, who remains in the presidential Blue House, could become the first democratically elected leader in South Korea to be forced from office.

Also on Thursday, the Seoul Administrative Court rejected a request by the special prosecutor to search the presidential Blue House, which follows an earlier failed attempt to do so.

Reporting by Joyce Lee, Hyunjoo Jin; Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim, Ju-min Park and Jeongeun Lee; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel

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