By Duncan Mackay

January 1 - Civic groups in South Korea have denounced the Presidential pardon of former Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee for embezzlement and tax evasion convictions so that he can resume his position as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and help Pyeongchang's bid to host the 2018 Winter Games.

Kim Sang-jo, the executive director of Solidarity for Economic Reform, said: "The latest pardon reconfirms a common saying in South Korea that Samsung lies above the law.

"There is a privileged class in our society when it comes to law enforcement," a statement issued by a coalition of six civic groups said.

The pardon, "will amplify social conflict," the statement said.

President Lee Myung-bak (pictured on right meeting Lee in 2007) said he pardoned Lee to allow the former chairman to serve on the IOC, which he temporarily had stood down from in 2008 because of his legal problems.

The pardon, which officially takes effect today, was Lee's second.

In 1997, Lee was pardoned of bribery charges.

In the more recent case, Lee was convicted of failing to pay $39 million (£24 million) in taxes, after it was alleged he hid money in accounts held under the names of aides.

It was also alleged he transferred ownership of company shares to his son Lee Jae-yong at unfairly low prices.

Lee's pardon came just four months after a Seoul court handed him a three-year suspended prison term and a fine of 110 billion won (£58 million) on conviction of illegal bond deals that helped him hand over partial control of the group to his son.

Park Yong-sung, chairman of the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC), was delighted with the decision.

He said: "Lee's reinstatement will be a great boost for Pyeongchang's Winter Olympics bid.

"On behalf of those in the sporting world, I appreciate the Government's special pardon.

"As Lee has voluntarily suspended his duties, he is expected to be reinstated in early January.

"He may resume his IOC activities in time for an IOC general meeting slated for February 8 in Vancouver."

Park had himself once been suspended as a member of the IOC before being restored following a bribery scandal in March 2006.

He had been suspended as an IOC member after he was convicted of embezzling millions of dollars amidst a family dispute over the management control of conglomerate Doosan Group, of which he was chairman.

In 2005, Park was given a three-year suspended jail sentence and an $8.5 million (£4.20 million) fine by the Seoul District Court for raising slush funds and inflating balance sheets

But then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun decided to give a special pardon for Park, among other business criminals, allowing him to return to the IOC.

He stood down from the IOC in December 2006 to concentrate on his role at Doosan.

Lee, who could return as head of Samsung as early as March when the company holds its annual shareholders meeting, is expected to travel the world campaigning on behalf of Pyeongchang's bid, which faces opposition from Annecy and Munich.

The IOC is due to choose the host city at its Session in Durban on July 6, 2011.

Lee, 67, ran Samsung for more than two decades helping transform Samsung Electronics Co. into the world’s largest makers of televisions, flat screens and memory chips, as well the second-largest producer of mobile phones.

Samsung is one of nine IOC TOP partners sponsoring the Winter Olympics in Vancouver next year and London in 2012.

A spokesman for Samsung said: "We would like to thank Government officials and the people.

"We will do our best to live up to the people's expectations in Pyeongchang's bid to host the Winter Olympics."

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