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South Korea prosecutors seek arrest of Samsung chief Jay Y Lee for bribery

Pedestrians walk past an effigy of Jay Y. Lee, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, outside Samsung's Seocho office building in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017.
Jean Chung | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past an effigy of Jay Y. Lee, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, outside Samsung's Seocho office building in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017.

South Korea's special prosecutors' office said it will seek a warrant to arrest the head of Samsung Group, the country's biggest conglomerate, accusing him of paying multi-million dollar bribes to a friend of President Park Geun-hye.

Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was questioned for 22 straight hours last week as investigators probed a corruption scandal that resulted in parliament impeaching Park last month.

The special prosecutors' office accused Lee of paying bribes totaling 43 billion won ($36.42 million) to Choi Soon-sil, a friend of the president who is at the center of scandal.

Lee, who became the de facto head of the Samsung Group after his father, Lee Kun-hee, suffered a heart attack in 2014, was also accused of embezzlement and perjury in the prosecution's application for an arrest warrant.

Seoul's central district court said a hearing would be held at 10:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) on Wednesday to decide whether to approve the warrant.

"The special prosecutors' office, in making this decision to seek an arrest warrant, determined that while the country's economic conditions are important, upholding justice takes precedence," Lee Kyu-chul, a spokesman for the office, told a media briefing.

Samsung said it could not accept the accusations that Lee paid bribes.

"It is difficult to understand the special prosecutors' decision," it said in an emailed statement.

Prosecutors have been looking into whether Samsung's support for a business and foundations backed by Park's friend Choi may have been connected to the National Pension Service's 2015 decision to support a controversial $8 billion merger of two Samsung Group affiliates.

NPS chairman Moon Hyung-pyo was indicted on Monday on charges of abuse of power and giving false testimony.

No ulterior motives

Park remains in office but has been stripped of her powers while the Constitutional Court decides whether to make her the country's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office.

Moon was arrested in December after acknowledging ordering the world's third-largest pension fund to support the $8 billion merger in 2015 while he was head of the health ministry, which oversees the NPS.

Samsung has acknowledged providing funds to the three institutions but has repeatedly denied accusations of lobbying to push through the merger.

Choi is accused of colluding with Park to pressure big businesses, including Samsung, to contribute to non-profit foundations backing the president's initiatives.

Choi, in detention and on trial on charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud, again denied wrongdoing on Monday in an appearance at the Constitutional Court.

She also denied having any prior knowledge of the Samsung Group's controversial 2015 merger of two affiliates.

"Even if I knew, I could not have passed on any information because I have no knowledge about mergers or hedge funds, anything like that, in the first place," Choi told the court.

South Korea has been gripped by political crisis for months, with Park impeached in December. Park has also denied wrongdoing, though admitted carelessness in her relationship with Choi.

If the impeachment is upheld by the Constitutional Court, an election would be held in two months, with former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expected to be a candidate.

Shares in group flagship Samsung Electronics, the world's top maker of smartphones, flatscreen TVs and memory chips, extended losses on Monday afternoon and were down 2.3 percent.

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