SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean prosecutors granted ex-President Lee Myung-bak a three-month release from prison over health concerns Tuesday after he served less than three years of a 17-year sentence for corruption.
Lee, 80, could be sent back to prison at the end of that period, barring further health setbacks, but there is also the possibility that he might be pardoned before then by President Yoon Suk Yeol, a fellow conservative who recently expressed a reluctance to keep him behind bars.
The Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office said in a statement to The Associated Press it decided to suspend the execution of Lee’s sentence for three months after a committee acknowledged the risk of a “significant deterioration” in his health. The office didn't elaborate on the health of Lee, who submitted a request for a stay of sentence earlier this month.
Lee was sent to prison after the Supreme Court confirmed his sentence in October 2020, but he has regularly received outside hospital treatment for various health problems including diabetes.
Lee did not immediately issue any statement regarding his temporary release. He is reportedly receiving treatment at Seoul National University Hospital, which did not comment on his health problems, citing privacy rules.
Yoon told reporters earlier this month that it would be inappropriate to keep Lee imprisoned for “20-something years,” inaccurately describing his prison term while citing the precedent of former presidents who were released early from their sentences following criminal convictions. There’s speculation that Lee could be considered for a presidential pardon ahead of an Aug. 15 holiday celebrating Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.
“If the Yoon government is considering a pardon for Lee, a temporary stay of sentence would be the most convenient political setup, much less burdensome than granting a parole,” said Han Sang-hie, a law professor at Seoul's Konkuk University.
Lee, a CEO-turned-conservative hero before his fall from grace, was convicted of taking bribes from big businesses including Samsung, embezzling funds from a company that he owned, and other corruption-related crimes before and during his presidency from 2008 to 2013.
A Seoul district court initially sentenced Lee in 2018 to 15 years in prison. He was released on bail several months later but was taken back into custody in February 2020 after an appellate court handed down a 17-year term and canceled his bail.
Lee was released days later after he appealed his bail cancelation, but he was sent back to prison in October 2020 after the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
Lee, a former Hyundai CEO, won the 2007 presidential election on a promise to reinvigorate the country’s economy. But his five years in office were marred by the global financial crisis, massive public protests over a resumption of imports of U.S. beef amid fears of mad cow disease, and animosities with rival North Korea, including two attacks blamed on the North that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Lee’s corruption case erupted after his conservative successor, Park Geun-hye, was removed from the presidency and jailed in 2017 over a separate corruption scandal that sparked massive protests.
Park served less than a quarter of her 22-year sentence before former President Moon Jae-in, a liberal, pardoned her last December, citing her health problems and a need to promote unity in the politically divided nation.