The de facto head of the Samsung Group has been released from a detention centre after a court rejected a request to arrest him for his alleged role in a scandal that brought down President Park Geun Hye.
The decision to release Mr Lee Jae Yong, 48, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, was immediately criticised by the liberal camp.
Mr Moon Jae In, the front runner for the next presidential election, called the move regrettable, while Seoul mayor Park Won Soon urged prosecutors to apply for another warrant. Both are from the Democratic Party, the main opposition party.
Some analysts said the decision could make the probe against President Park, as well as other business groups allegedly involved in the corruption and influence-peddling scandal, more difficult.
But Mr Lee's release was welcomed by business lobby groups, which had voiced concern that a leadership vacuum could hurt the country's largest conglomerate as well as the country's economy.
We've seen so many chaebol chairmen sent to jail being pardoned.
ENTREPRENEUR SHIN SEUNG HYUN, 31, who says no one is surprised that Mr Lee escaped arrest.
The Seoul Central District Court delivered the verdict at nearly 5am yesterday after 18 hours of review, citing a lack of evidence to justify the arrest of Mr Lee at the current stage of investigations.
The only son of ailing Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun Hee, he got back to work immediately without going home.
He is accused of ordering Samsung Group to give bribes amounting to 43 billion won (S$52 million) to Ms Park's close friend, Choi Soon Sil, in return for government support for a controversial merger of two major Samsung affiliates in 2015 to pave the way for his succession.
Samsung has denied making the donations in return for business favours, even though earlier investigations by prosecutors revealed that Ms Park had colluded with Choi to extort money from Samsung and other major chaebols, or family-run conglomerates.
A separate team of special investigators requested an arrest warrant for Mr Lee on Monday, but was rejected by the Seoul court. A judge said it was debatable whether Samsung gave the money for favours.
About half of the money was donated to two non-profit foundations set up by Choi, allegedly for her personal gain, while the other half was used to sponsor Choi's daughter, an equestrian athlete, prosecutors said.
A spokesman for the special probe team said the court's decision is "regretful" but will not affect its investigations and plans to question President Park next month. The probe is due to end on Feb 28, but can be extended for another 30 days upon request.
Still, Mr Lee faces questions over charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury by special prosecutors investigating the scandal. Samsung officials said the group would be run by a team of top executives until Mr Lee is cleared of the charges.
Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said he expected the court's decision as there is not enough "concrete evidence".
"He provided financial support at the request of the President. Given the information available, that is not something that can be categorised as bribery," he told The Straits Times.
Entrepreneur Shin Seung Hyun, 31, said no one is surprised that Mr Lee escaped arrest. "We've seen so many chaebol chairmen sent to jail being pardoned."
Shares of major Samsung Group affiliates rose yesterday after the arrest warrant for Mr Lee was rejected. Shares of Samsung Electronics rose 1.3 per cent, while that of Samsung C&T were up 2.03 per cent at one point early yesterday, Yonhap News Agency reported.