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(2nd LD) Lee grants special pardons to friend, close associates
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Jan. 29 (Yonhap) -- Outgoing President Lee Myung-bak issued special pardons to a long-time friend, close associates and dozens of others Tuesday despite mounting criticism, especially from his successor, that he is abusing his clemency power in his last days in office.

   Lee approved the pardons for 55 people in a Cabinet meeting, saying he tried to ensure the measure conforms to "law and principles" by creating a pardon review committee comprising many civilian members, presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha said.

   "This is not an abuse of power. It was carried out according to law and procedures," Lee said.

   Those pardoned included Lee's long-time friend Chun Shin-il and close political ally Choi See-joong, both of them convicted of bribery charges; former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae; and Kim Hyo-jae, a former senior political affairs aide to Lee.


Park and Kim were convicted in a vote-buying scandal in a ruling party leadership election.

   Others included Suh Chung-won, a former lawmaker considered close to President-elect Park Geun-hye who was convicted in a bribery scandal involving proportional parliamentary seats, and five squatters convicted in a deadly 2009 clash with police over a redevelopment project in Seoul's Yongsan area.

   Elderly and foreign prisoners were also pardoned, officials said.

   The decision is expected to further heighten tensions between Lee and Park as the incoming president has been highly critical of the pardon plans, saying the move runs counter to the "will of the people" and amounts to "abusing" his presidential power.

   After the pardons were announced, Park's transition team expressed strong protests.

   "The special pardons are very regrettable," spokesman Yoon Chang-jung said. "Pushing ahead with pardoning those involved in irregularities and corruption will receive national blame. Lee should bear all responsibility."

   Still, the opposition party and some critics have raised suspicions that Park's criticism is nothing but a political show aimed at aimed at shielding her from the backlash over the unpopular pardons.

   The pardons have been a top political issue in South Korea since Lee's office said earlier this month it was considering pardons to mark Lunar New Year's Day. Critics have denounced the move as an attempt to get close confidants of Lee out of jail less than a month before he leaves office.

   South Korean presidents have issued pardons to commemorate national holidays, such as Lunar New Year's Day, or at the end of their terms despite criticism that the practice hurts the rule of law.

   Lee's office has said that special pardons are a right of the president.

   In Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, Lee said that the government stuck to key principles in selecting beneficiaries, such as excluding relatives of the president and those involved in influence-peddling scandals that broke out since the current government was launched in early 2008.

   Lee also said he sought to use the pardons to help resolve social discord.

   "At the time of the launch of our government, I announced that I won't abuse pardon power and won't pardon those involved in power-related corruption cases happening during my term," Lee said. "The pardons were carried out according to the principles."

   It was the seventh set of special pardons since Lee assumed office.

   The main opposition Democratic United Party also lambasted Lee.

   "We cannot help but be appalled at President Lee's brazen behavior of sticking to arrogance, self-righteousness and ignorance until the last minute despite objections from all the people," said Rep. Jung Sung-ho, senior party spokesman.

   "It is truly lamentable for him to say he is going to dole out complete acquittals to close confidants," he said. "President Lee, who used power bestowed by the people for personal gains and safety, will be judged by history and all responsibility lies with him."