Lee was imprisoned for bribery in a complex case involving the highest echelons of a previous government and attempts to minimize tax payments while re-organizing the sprawling conglomerate.
He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but will be given parole from Aug. 15, a traditional day for pardons and prisoner amnesties, and eleven months short of his full jail term. Under new regulations, prisoners may be eligible for parole after they have served 60% of their sentence, down from 80% under previous rules.
“The (parole) committee decided to grant parole for Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong, considering the current conditions in the global business environment,” Justice Minister Park Beom-kye said at a press conference. “The committee also said to have considered various factors including public sentiment and his conduct in prison.”
Public sentiment is divided, however.
Local business chambers have lobbied for Lee’s early release and even a pardon. In a petition to President Moon Jae-in they argued that Samsung’s decision-making process has slowed with Lee behind bars, and that the company needs to raise its game to stay competitive, especially in the semiconductor sector.
Other civil society groups civic groups, including the progressive People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, have condemned the parole move. They described it as “preferential treatment toward a (big business) leader,” representing the “death penalty” for the justice system, and contrary to Moon’s stated anti-corruption stance.
It is not yet clear whether Lee will be allowed to immediately return to top ranks of Samsung. Under the Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Specific Economic Crimes there is a five-year ban on people convicted of embezzlement or breach of trust working for companies related to their crimes, or any institution that receives government subsidies.
The act applies in cases of more than KRW500 million ($436,000). Lee was convicted of channeling KRW8.6 billion won ($7.51 million) to former President Park Geun-hye.
Still, the Justice Ministry acknowledged that it had taken “the current conditions in the global business environment,” into consideration when granting leniency for Lee.