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S. Korea leader issues controversial pardons

SEOUL -- South Korea's outgoing president Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday brushed off criticism from his successor and handed out pardons to a host of former close aides and confidantes jailed for corruption.

The special pardons for 55 people included Lee's longtime confidante and former minister Choi See-joong and friend and businessman Chun Shin-il — both serving prison terms for bribery.

Former parliament speaker Park Hee-tae and an ex-senior political affairs aide to Lee were also pardoned. Both were convicted last year for their roles in a vote-buying scandal in Lee's ruling conservative party.

“This is not an abuse of power. It was carried out according to law and procedure,” Lee's spokesman told reporters after the pardons were announced.

The list did not include the president's elder brother, Lee Sang-deuk, who was convicted and sentenced last week to two years in jail for corruption.

There had been speculation that his brother's case had been rushed through the court to make him eligible for a presidential pardon.

Lee's successor, President-elect Park Geun-hye, who had urged Lee not to hand out the pardons, felt it was “extremely regrettable” that he had decided to go ahead, Park's spokeswoman told reporters.

“The latest special pardons ignore the will of the people and are an abuse of presidential power, and will undoubtedly trigger nationwide condemnation,” the spokeswoman said.

Lee and Park, who will assume office next month, are both from the same conservative New Frontier Party.

The right of South Korean presidents to grant pardons is enshrined in the constitution and is often exercised at the time of major national holidays and at the end of their terms.

The list announced Tuesday was Lee's seventh round of pardons since he took office, and his previous acts of clemency have generated similar criticism.

He has been accused of particularly favoring the leaders of South Korea's giant family-run conglomerates, or chaebols.

In 2008, Lee pardoned Hyundai Motor head Chung Mong-koo, who had been convicted of embezzlement and other charges.

In 2009, he pardoned Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee — convicted of tax evasion — to allow the tycoon to boost Seoul's effort to host the Winter Olympics as a member of the International Olympics Committee.

Lee had promised at the beginning of his five-year term to form a “moral government” untarnished by the chronic corruption that haunted past administrations.

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