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Jan 18, 3:56 PM EST

Court denies a request to arrest Samsung's de facto head


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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- A Seoul court denied a request to arrest Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, a setback to prosecutors investigating an influence-peddling scandal that toppled South Korea's president.

The Seoul Central District Court said Thursday that a judge concluded that there was not enough justification to detain the 48-year-old Samsung heir at this stage.

The announcement, made around 5 a.m. local time, allows Lee to return home after a long night. He had been waiting for the court's decision at a detention center south of Seoul for more than 12 hours after a court hearing the previous day.

Samsung said "the merits of this case can now be determined without the need for detention."

It is not uncommon in South Korea to issue an arrest warrant past midnight for important cases that have many contentious issues, said Shin Jae-hwan, a spokesman for the Seoul court. The long deliberation reflects that the judge must have been agonizing over the decision, he added.

Prosecutors accused Lee of giving 43 billion won ($36 million) in bribes to President Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil, her confidante, seeking support for a contentious merger. They also suspect him of embezzling and lying under oath during a parliamentary hearing last month.

Their plan to expand the bribery probe to Park may have hit a snag with the denial of the request to arrest Lee.

Samsung avoided what could have been a stunning fall for the princeling of the country's richest family who has been groomed to lead South Korea's most successful company.

Lee has been serving as the de facto head of Samsung since his father suffered a heart attack in 2014. Shortly after the recalls of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone last year, he joined the board of Samsung Electronics, the group's crown jewel.

Conglomerates like Samsung, known as chaebol, dominate the Asian country's economy, jobs and investment.

Some business groups and newspapers urged caution out of concern that arresting Lee could hurt the economy because of Samsung's huge role in South Korean industry. Samsung Electronics and its affiliated companies account for about a third of the market value in South Korea's main stock market.

But civic groups called for Lee's arrest to show that all are equal before the law.

Many were infuriated by the allegations that the government had pressured a pension fund, a major investor in Samsung, to help the Lee family's succession plan. Moon Hyung-pyo, the former health minister was indicted on Monday for allegedly pressuring pension fund officials to support the merger.

Prosecutors said Moon, who now heads the pension fund, acted on behalf of President Park, who ordered him to ensure the Samsung merger went smoothly. They plan to summon Park to question her about the bribery allegations.

Park has been suspended from her duties since the parliament impeached her in December. She is awaiting the Constitutional Court's decision on whether her impeachment will be upheld. Choi is on trial for meddling in state affairs.

Educated in South Korea, Japan and the United States, Lee is the crown prince of the country's richest family, one South Koreans often liken to royalty.

His father is South Korea's richest individual whose net worth is estimated at $14.8 billion by Forbes Magazine. The younger Lee's net worth is estimated at $5.8 billion.

The elder Lee was convicted twice on bribery, embezzlement and other charges in 1996 and 2008, but he was never imprisoned. He received suspended jail terms and was later pardoned by the country's presidents both times.

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