Samsung Electronics (Yonhap)
An independent committee recommended Friday against an indictment of Samsung Group heir Lee Jae-yong, dealing a blow to the prosecution's plan to formally charge him over his role in a controversial merger and alleged accounting fraud.
The panel of outside experts concluded that the prosecution's investigation into the high-profile succession case was not warranted, after a lengthy discussion at the Supreme Prosecutors Office in southern Seoul.
The 14-member committee consisted of members drawn from a pool of experts from academia, media, civic organizations and cultural industries.
Except for one acting chairperson, 13 members participated in the deliberation process and voted in favor of Lee, advising the prosecution to drop the investigation and not indict him. Most of them were said to conclude that it was hard to substantiate some of the prosecution's claims against him, including alleged violation of the capital market laws. The committee also reportedly factored in Samsung's role in the country's coronavirus-battered economy.
Lee's lawyers welcomed the decision.
"We respect the decision from the committee," they said in a release. "We thank the committee for giving Lee and Samsung a chance to focus on their business activities and overcome the current crisis.
In a short statement, the prosecution said it would "determine the future course of its legal action based on the investigation's results and the committee's recommendation."
During the deliberation process, Samsung Group and the prosecutors submitted written opinions totaling 50 pages in length and took turns giving presentations and answered questions from the panel. Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, did not attend the meeting.
Although not legally binding, the conclusion is expected to weigh in the prosecution's decision process for further legal actions against Lee.
Since the introduction of the system in 2018, the committee had given out recommendations in eight cases and the prosecution has followed all of them.
But some expect the prosecution, having shown confidence over the ability to prove Lee's guilt, to push ahead with its plan to bring charges against Lee for stock manipulation and violation of capital market laws.
The experts' review was established after a citizen's panel, formed by the prosecution, arrived at a decision on June 11 that the issue needed independent reassessment.
Early this month, the Samsung scion requested public assessment of the investigation, an outside review system introduced two years ago to enhance neutrality and fairness of prosecutorial investigations into cases that are of great public interest.
Lee is accused of playing a role in the controversial merger in 2015 between two Samsung affiliates, Cheil Industries Inc. and Samsung C&T, and suspected accounting fraud at the pharmaceutical unit of Samsung Biologics.
The prosecutors suspect that the merger and fraud were designed to help him gain greater control of the country's biggest conglomerate.
Lee is the grandson of Lee Byung-chull, the founder of Samsung Group. His father, Lee Kun-hee, has been incapacitated since he suffered a heart attack in 2014.
On June 9, the Seoul Central District Court rejected the prosecution's request to put Lee behind bars for a further investigation.
It said there was "insufficient explanation on the need and validity to arrest the defendants against the principle of trial without detention," referring to the principle that pretrial detention should only be used as a last resort. The court also said whether Lee is guilty should be determined through "legal battles and court hearings."
Lee has denied the allegations against him. Samsung also has claimed that Lee was not briefed on and did not order any illegal transactions, including stock manipulation and accounting fraud.
The Seoul-based civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy strongly criticized the committee's decision for overlooking "the grave criminal allegations (against Lee)."
"We express our deepest regret for the decision that groundlessly gave Samsung the upper hand," it said in a statement. "The court acknowledged allegations against Lee," it argued, citing the judge's statement when she rejected the prosecution's arrest warrant earlier this month.
At that time she said, "The basic facts (of the case) have been all explained. And prosecutors seem to have already secured considerable evidence through the investigation."
The civic group continued, "It is questionable whether the investigation into the allegations surrounding the illegal succession was excessive," demanding the prosecution proceed with an indictment. (Yonhap)