NATIONAL

Trial of Samsung heir apparent begins

By Ock Hyun-ju

Prosecution asks court to extend Park’s detention by 10 days

  • Published : Apr 7, 2017 - 17:57
  • Updated : Apr 17, 2017 - 13:54
A Seoul court on Friday began the trial of the country’s most prominent businessman -- Samsung Group’s de facto chief Lee Jae-yong -- on bribery charges in connection with the scandal that removed President Park Geun-hye from power.

On the same day, prosecutors sought to extend the arrest of the ousted president and questioned Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin on a related allegation -- providing donations to foundations allegedly controlled by Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil. 

Lee is brought to court in handcuffs. (Yonhap)

The investigators suspect Lee and Shin offered bribes, not donations, to the entities controlled by Choi, Park’s friend of 40 years, expecting political favors from the Park administration.

At the courtroom on Friday, Lee, the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, denied the accusation.

Handcuffed and wearing a gray suit, the heir and only son of Samsung Group chairman attended the first hearing of his trial at the Seoul Central District Court, along with four other executives from the conglomerate, who are facing the same charges.

“We secured enough evidence to prove that Lee sought favors from former President Park to achieve a smooth transfer of power and tighten his control on the Samsung Group,” special counsel Park Young-soo said during the hearing.

“The Samsung’s bribery case was a typical form of cozy relations between politicians and businessmen to pursue private benefits,” he said.

The prosecution suspects that Lee, who was arrested in February, gave or promised to give 43.3 billion won ($38.2 million) to Choi that she used for her private interests. He is accused of using the company money to make donations for a winter sports center and the K-Sports and Mir foundations, all allegedly controlled by Choi, and sponsoring Choi’s daughter and equestrian Chung Yoo-ra for overseas training and the purchase of horses.

In return for Samsung’s financial support for Choi, the ousted Park is suspected of using her power to ease regulations, revise relevant laws and pressure a state-run agency to back a controversial merger of two key Samsung units. The merger was a crucial step for the company’s smooth transition of leadership from its ailing chairman Lee Kun-hee to his only son Lee Jae-yong.

“Without the president’s help, it was impossible to achieve a smooth transition of power,” the prosecution said during the hearing, adding the bribery links were formed through three face-to-face meetings between Park and Lee from late 2014 to early 2016.

Lee, through his lawyers, said that he had already firmed up his control of Samsung Group and did not need any help from the president in this regard.

“The donations were made upon the president’s request without any favors in return,” his lawyer Song Woo-chul said. He did not know who Choi Soon-sil was and that she was behind the foundations, according to the lawyer.

Lee’s defense team also took issue with the prosecution’s indictment, saying there was no solid evidence to back the charges against Lee and that they were based on prosecutors’ presumptions and prejudice.

As Park was arrested on March 31 on charges including bribery and abuse of power, the prosecution has focused on investigating former presidential secretary Woo Byung-woo and corporations that contributed money to the Mir and K-Sports foundations.

Shin Dong-bin, chairman of retail giant Lotte Group, appeared at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office Friday morning to be grilled.

The prosecution is looking into whether the donations worth 11.5 billion won made by Lotte for the Choi-controlled foundations were bribes in return for a favor in the company’s bid for a business license for its duty-free shop.

Woo, who is suspected of abetting or condoning Choi’s meddling in state affairs and exerting undue influence under the Park administration, was questioned at the prosecution’s office a day earlier.

Park is under suspicion that she colluded with Choi to extort donations worth 77.4 billion won from local firms to help Choi’s business interests. The Constitutional Court removed her from office over her role in Choi’s manipulation of power on March 10, which stripped her of presidential immunity to criminal investigation.

Park has so far been questioned twice in jail over corruption allegations. The prosecution Friday requested her detention to be extended by another 10 days to until April 19. The prosecution will grill her again inside the Seoul Detention Center, where she is in custody, Saturday, it said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)