Allegations of graft involving the conservative 76-year-old's relatives and aides during his term have mounted in recent weeks
PIC: Lee reportedly spent more than 21 hours at the prosecutors' office in Seoul from Wednesday morning. (Credit: AFP)
POLITICS | CORRUPTION
SOUTH KOREA - Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak returned home Thursday after a marathon interrogation by prosecutors over corruption, the last of the country's living ex-leaders to be embroiled in a criminal inquiry.
Allegations of graft involving the conservative 76-year-old's relatives and aides during his term have mounted in recent weeks as prosecutors investigate multiple cases of bribery amounting to millions of dollars.
The probe means that all four living former South Korean presidents have been convicted, charged, or investigated for criminal offences.
Lee spent more than 21 hours at the prosecutors' office in Seoul from Wednesday morning, and did not reply to questions from journalists outside as he left.
"President Lee denied most of the charges," a prosecutor was quoted as telling Yonhap news agency.
Lee, who was head of state from 2008 to 2013, has previously denounced the inquiry as "political revenge" and said Wednesday he hoped it would be the "last time in history" that a South Korean ex-leader was summoned for questioning by prosecutors.
"As a former president, I have a lot to say about this but I will spare my words," he told reporters when he arrived for the interrogation.
Prosecutors are thought likely to ask a court for an arrest warrant for Lee in the coming days.
But almost one in six South Koreans -- 15.3 percent -- think he should be treated leniently because of his status as a former president, an opinion poll by Realmeter showed.
The figure rose to 50 percent among supporters of the main opposition Liberty Korea party -- which Lee led under a previous name -- with only 38 percent believing he should be strictly punished according to the law.
Among the population as a whole, 79.5 percent said he should receive no preferential treatment.
South Korean presidents have a tendency to end up in prison -- or meet untimely ends -- after their time in power, usually once their political rivals have moved into the presidential Blue House.
Conservative Park Geun-hye was ousted last year over a massive corruption scandal that emerged in 2016, and the verdict in her bribery and abuse of power trial is due next month, with prosecutors demanding 30 years in jail.
Lee's own predecessor, the liberal Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff after being questioned over corruption allegations in 2009.
After the South embraced democracy in the 1990s former dictator Chun Doo-hwan and his friend and successor Roh Tae-woo were handed sentences of death and life imprisonment respectively for their involvement in a 1979 military coup and for receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from businesses.
Both their sentences were reduced on appeal, and they were eventually pardoned and released after serving about two years each.
The allegations against Lee 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.
Both Samsung and Lee have denied the allegations as groundless.