• Reuters

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South Korea's President Moon Jae-in granted a pardon to former President Park Geun-hye, who is in prison after being convicted of corruption, the Justice Ministry said on Friday, amid a tight presidential race.

Park, 69, became South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be thrown out of office when the Constitutional Court upheld a parliament vote in 2017 to impeach her over a scandal that also landed the heads of two conglomerates, including Samsung Electronics, in jail.

She was brought down after being found guilty of colluding with a confidante to receive tens of billions of won from major conglomerates to help her family and fund nonprofit foundations she owned.

"We must overcome the pain of the past and move forward into the new era," said Moon, who was propelled into power in 2017 following public backlash against Park and her conservative party. "Considering the many challenges we face, national unity and humble inclusiveness are more urgent than anything else."

Moon said Park's deteriorating health after serving almost five years in jail was also a factor in the decision to pardon her.

In January, South Korea's top court upheld a 20-year prison sentence for Park on the graft charges that finalized her downfall, bringing an end to the legal process and for the first time raising the possibility of a pardon.

But Park's predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who is also imprisoned on corruption charges, was not pardoned.

"We've included former President Park to overcome unfortunate past history, realize people's unity and provide a chance to take a new step forward to the future," Justice Minister Park Beom-Kye told a briefing.

The decision came as many supporters and politicians of the conservative main opposition People Power Party have been calling for Park's pardon ahead of the March presidential election.

The flag bearer of Moon's ruling Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, and People Power's candidate Yoon Suk-yeol are neck and neck in recent opinion polls.

Opposition lawmakers have said that Park has experienced health problems while in prison, including undergoing shoulder surgery.

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