A Seoul court issued an arrest warrant Thursday for former President Lee Myung-bak on bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion and other charges.
A grim-faced Lee was taken in a black prosecution sedan from his home in southern Seoul to the Seoul Eastern Detention Center, becoming the nation's fourth former president to be arrested for corruption. He was assigned to a solitary cell.
The 76-year-old former conservative leader faces at least 12 charges, including taking more than 11 billion won (US$10.2 million) in bribes from the state spy agency and businesses.
He is also suspected of embezzling about 35 billion won from a company, which he is said to secretly own, and of evading related taxes.
Other charges include abuse of power, breach of trust, illegally stashing presidential documents and a violation of election law.
If convicted of everything, he could face up to 45 years in prison.
Lee was president from 2008 to early 2013. Previously he served as Seoul mayor, a lawmaker and chief executive of Hyundai Engineering and Construction.
The prosecution requested the warrant Monday after a five-month probe into his relatives and aides. Lee himself was interrogated for more than 15 hours on March 14 and 15.
A judge at the Seoul Central District Court approved the warrant, acknowledging that the facts regarding his crimes had been established. The judge described the crimes as serious and said there is a risk of him of destroying evidence.
In a handwritten statement posted on Facebook, the disgraced former leader said he feels a "sense of guilt."
"Rather than blaming anybody, I feel that all is my fault, and I feel a sense of guilt," he wrote, adding that he went through "pains" he found "difficult to endure" over the last 10 months during the corruption probe.
"I hope that my arrest will lessen the pains of those who worked with me (during my presidency), and of my family," he added.
Lee has denied all charges and claimed no knowledge of the alleged crimes. He called the investigation "political revenge" by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.
Moon has been carrying out a sweeping anti-corruption drive since he took office in May last year following former President Park Geun-hye's ousting over a massive graft and influence-peddling scandal.
Lee's detention comes about one year after the arrest of Park, his successor.
This is the second time South Korea has seen two former presidents behind bars at the same time.
Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who seized power through a 1979 military coup, were imprisoned for mutiny and corruption in 1995. They were released through a presidential pardon in 1997.
Late President Roh Moo-hyun was also investigated for alleged corruption involving his family in 2009 while Lee was in office. He killed himself while the probe was ongoing in May of that year.
The judge approved Lee's arrest after reviewing documents from the prosecution and his legal representatives. A court hearing was canceled after Lee refused to appear.
At the center of the scandal is a company called DAS, a supplier of automobile parts to Hyundai Motor Co. The company was established in 1987 and its majority shareholder is Lee's elder brother Lee Sang-eun.
But the prosecution said they secured compelling evidence to back the long-running rumor that the former president is its real owner. The prosecutors claimed Lee created an illicit secret fund of 33.9 billion won from the company and misappropriated 34.8 billion won for political activities and personal purposes.
In the process, he manipulated company accounting and evaded about 3.1 billion won in corporate taxes, the prosecution claimed.
The gravest charge Lee faces is bribery amounting to 11 billion won.
Samsung Electronics is alleged to have paid 6.77 billion won in retaining fees for DAS in 2009. DAS had filed a lawsuit to recoup its investment in a U.S. financial firm run by Lee's estranged former business partner.
Samsung is believed to have bought a presidential pardon for Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted of tax evasion, in 2009.
Lee is also suspected of taking 700 million won from off-book accounts of the National Intelligence Service via his aides.
The prosecution also claimed he received 2.26 billion from Lee Pal-seung, a former chief of Woori Finance Holdings Co., in return for giving him the job at the then state-run lender.
In addition, Lee is said to have received kickbacks in hundreds of millions of won from a construction firm, a former lawmaker and a Buddhist leader.
The prosecution also accused him of using his presidential power to have government agencies to help the DAS lawsuit and pressure the U.S. financial company to return the money to DAS.
During a recent raid on a building owned by Lee, the investigators found documents that were produced by the presidential office and should have been sent to the national archives. They were illegally kept in secret storage in the building.
Lee has denied all the charges. He said he did not know about the alleged bribes and that his aides lied to the prosecution, who sought to link him to the crimes. The prosecution said he claimed the documents found in the building were manipulated. (Yonhap)