Former S. Korean president Lee slams 'insult' corruption charges

Seoul (AFP) –


Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday defiantly described the corruption charges he faces as an "insult" at his first court appearance since his arrest in March.

The 76-year-old former CEO turned president -- who served from 2008 to 2013 -- faces multiple charges including bribery, abuse of power, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

The case against Lee means all four former South Korean presidents who are still alive have been charged or convicted for criminal offences.

TV footage showed Lee, wearing a dark blue suit with a badge with his inmate number "716" pinned to the lapel, being led into a courtroom in Seoul. He was uncuffed due to his advanced age.

"I stand here broken-hearted," Lee said in his opening statement.

He has been charged with accepting a total of some 11 billion won ($10.2 million) in bribes between late 2007 when he was elected president and 2012, according to prosecutor documents.

These allegations include claims that the Samsung Group bought a presidential pardon in 2009 for its chairman Lee Kun-hee, who had been convicted of tax evasion and given a suspended jail sentence.

"I was appalled by the allegations that I received bribes from Samsung in return for a presidential pardon," Lee said.

"This is an insult to me," he added.

He claimed he had given the Samsung chief, then a member of the International Olympic Committee, a special pardon so that he could lead efforts to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, which eventually took place in Pyeongchang.

Samsung allegedly paid six billion won ($5.6 million) in legal fees to a US law firm on Lee's behalf.

The firm was representing DAS, an auto parts company which prosecutors claim Lee owns in his relatives' names, which was involved in a costly court battle with a US businessman at the time.

Both Samsung and Lee have denied the allegations, saying they are groundless.

The money that prosecutors claim Lee took includes 1.7 billion won in secret funds syphoned off from the country's spy agency and some 3.5 billion won received in return for favours, from people including business figures, a politician and a Buddhist monk.

Separately, prosecutors claim Lee embezzled 35 billion won from DAS over 12 years between 1994 and 2006.

Lee on Wednesday repeated his denial that he owned DAS, saying the auto parts company belongs to his brother.

"I just hope the country's justice system may prove its fairness before the people and the international community through this trial," he concluded.

South Korean presidents have a tendency to end up in prison after their time in power -- usually once their political rivals have moved into the presidential Blue House.

Last month Lee's successor Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined millions of dollars for bribery and abuse of power.

Two former army generals who served as president through the 1980s to early 1990s also spent time in jail after leaving office but were later pardoned.

Another former leader, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide after becoming embroiled in a corruption probe.