Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong charged with bribery to former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to five years in prison on Friday.
The court ruled he had bribed Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil by sponsoring equestrian trainings of Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra and donating to a winter sports center Choi effectively controlled.
“Lee offered bribes in anticipation of Park’s favor in tightening his managerial control over Samsung Group,” it ruled.
The court said it could not acknowledge that Lee had requested Park’s favor explicitly during his private meeting with her.
“Park was aware of the issue of Samsung’s management succession, and Lee knew what Park meant by demanding Samsung’s assistance to national equestrians was assistance to Chung,” the court ruled. “There was Lee’s implicit request to Park concerning his bid to secure the managerial control over the group.”
Lee’s defense team argued it was illogical for Lee to ask for Park’s influence on the management succession from his father to him. The merger of two Samsung affiliates — Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T — regarded as one of crucial steps to complete the management succession was made before his meeting with Park.
According to the ruling, although Lee and Park did not talk about the management succession, Lee funded equestrian trainings, expecting Park to give her favors on the issue, and in return Park actually influenced the management succession. Hence the establishment of bribery. The court also ruled bribery has been established regardless of whether Park and Choi were an “economic union.”
If a defendant is ruled guilty in a criminal trial, his or her guilt must be proved beyond a “reasonable doubt.” It is questionable whether this principle applies to an implicit request for favor. If an implicit request is deemed as an act of bribery, other companies which donated to the two foundations should have been indicted.
The court ruled, “Lee accepted Park’s active demand passively, instead of asking actively for her favors, and yet Samsung’s assistance to Chung amounts to bribery.” In accordance with this logic, Lee should have refused the president’s demand. It would not be easy for a company to turn down demand by president who “has powerful and final authority over economic policies.”
The court did not acknowledge all bribery charges filed by special counsel. It did not regard 20.4 billion won ($1.81 million) Samsung contributed to Choi’s two foundations as bribery, but 7.2 billion won the group provided for Chung’s trainings and 1.6 billion won it sponsored to the Korea Winter Sports Elite Center as bribery.
Special prosecutor argued the bribery amounted to 43.3 billion won, including 21.3 billion won Samsung promised to pay. The court’s acknowledged bribery amount arouses doubt that special prosecutor went too far.
Anyway, the first trial gave a win to special prosecutor — and the new administration, which was launched after the impeachment of Park over bribery and other scandals.
The special prosecutor said, “We will do our best to the last to turn some of the ‘not guilty’ charges into ‘guilty’ ones and win a heavier sentence in an appeals court.”
Lee’s lawyers also said they would appeal immediately, saying “they cannot accept the first trial court’s rulings at all.”
As expected, legal fights between the two sides look inevitable.
From now on, both special counsel and Lee’s defense lawyers had better refrain from questioning the first trial rulings, but instead focus on trial in the higher court.
This is a high-profile case. The first trial was expected to make a lucid ruling most of the people could accept, but seems to have failed to meet their, and both sides’, expectations.
Presidential impeachment is a politically charged judicial procedure which is hard to be free from the influence of public opinion, but criminal procedure after impeachment must be more rigorous and must not be swayed by public opinion.
There is a high expectation that if the case is appealed, the superior court will rule on the case strictly by the principles of law without leaving reasonable doubt.