Samsung chief cleared in bribe scandal

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The Seoul District Prosecutors Office on Wednesday cleared all people related to Samsung, including its chairman, Lee Kun-hee, of any wrongdoing over a political bribery scandal that tarnished some of South Korea?s leading businessmen and politicians.

However, the journalists who reported the contents of the tape recordings that started the furore ? in which people related to Samsung allegedly discussed bribing business-friendly politicians ? have been indicted. The security chief who authorised the eavesdropping also faces trial.

Samsung?s exoneration, on grounds of insufficient evidence and the fact that the statute of limitations had expired, will come as a relief to the company?s controlling Lee family.

The family?s troubles began in July with the emergence of tapes apparently recording a conversation between Hong Seok-hyun, South Korea?s ambassador to the US and Mr Lee?s brother-in-law, and Lee Hak-soo, Samsung?s vice-chairman and an aide to Mr Lee. The men appeared to be discussing giving Won10bn ($9.8m) to presidential candidates during the 1997 election campaign.

Mr Lee is being sued over alleged debts relating to Samsung?s defunct car unit. The family?s problems were compounded last month when Lee Yoon-hyun, Mr Lee?s 26-year-old daughter, killed herself.

On Wednesday the prosecutors office said it had found no evidence of embezzlement by Mr Lee ? affirming his contention that the money was personal rather than Samsung?s ? and that the money was a political donation rather than bribery. The seven-year statute of limitations had also expired, it said.

Mr Hong, at the time the publisher of JoongAng Ilbo, a newspaper with close ties to Samsung, resigned as ambassador after the scandal broke, while Mr Lee went to the US, reportedly for medical treatment.

The prosecutor said there was no evidence that Lee Hak-soo and Mr Hong were involved in bribery or embezzlement. Samsung declined to comment.

The prosecutor cleared the politicians concerned ? including Lee Hoi-chang, the former chairman of the opposition Grand National party, who was a frontrunner in the 1997 elections ? and all current and former prosecutors of illegally receiving funds.

?The prosecution has conducted a thorough investigation of the spy agency?s illegal wiretapping operations on politicians, businessmen, judicial officials and journalists in the past governments,? Hwang Kyo-ahn, the senior prosecutor who directed the wiretapping investigation, said on Wednesday.

?However, with the statute of limitations on most illegal activities . . . expiring and the spy agency already having destroyed a significant part of related evidence, there had been difficulties in pushing ahead the investigation,? he said.

The prosecutor?s office indicted the MBC and Monthly Chosun journalists who reported the contents of the tapes for violating the communications privacy protection law.

The ?X-file? scandal, as it has been dubbed in the media, uncovered the prevalence of bugging in South Korea as recently as the late 1990s.

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