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SEOUL - With bated breath, management at Samsung Electronics is waiting to see if the conglomerate's leader, Jay Y. Lee, will be released on parole this month.
Support for his parole, both political and amongst the public, has grown amid anxiety that key strategic decisions are not being made at the South Korean tech giant.
If he is released, Samsung would be able to move forward with major investment and M&A projects - decisions company sources say should only be made by Lee who has been unable to address them while he sits in jail convicted of bribery and embezzlement.
In particular, a decision on the location of a $17 billion U.S. plant to produce advanced logic chips awaits his return, four Samsung sources told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The word is that the U.S. investment will be finalised when Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee is back," said one of the people.
Kinam Kim, head of chips and components at Samsung and one of the firm's three co-CEOs, made a rare direct appeal to President Moon Jae-in in June, arguing Lee's return was crucial.
"Semiconductors need large investment decisions and the decisions can only be made quickly when the head of the conglomerate is present," Moon's office quoted Kim as saying.
Lee served one year of an initial 5-year sentence from August 2017 which was later suspended. That court decision was overturned and the sentence revised to 30 months https://www.reuters.com/article/us-samsung-elec-heir-idUSKBN29M0PQ, putting him back in jail in January this year. Having served some 18 months, he has just become eligible for release.
The Justice Ministry last month eased parole eligibility guidelines for first-time offenders with good behaviour like Lee to 60% of sentence term served. The average eligible time for all criminals in South Korea was 80% prior to the easing.
Lee's parole is expected to be reviewed on Aug. 9, and within Samsung hopes are high that he will be freed around Aug. 15 when the country celebrates Independence Day and pardons have traditionally been issued, three of the Samsung sources said.
The Justice Ministry and Samsung declined to comment.
If paroled, Lee would need the Justice Minister to approve his return to work as the law bars persons from working for companies involved in certain convictions for five years. He is likely to get that, legal experts say, as the amount deemed embezzled has been repaid.
While there have been some protests against an early release for Lee and civic groups have voiced opposition, public support for his early release is at about 70%, according to two polls.
A parliamentary committee leader has also voiced his support while other members of the ruling party have visited Samsung's chip complex noting that Lee is eligible for parole.