The trial of the impeached president and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, who are at the center of the corruption scandal that removed Park from office in March and landed Lee in jail for a five-year term last week, is ongoing. The ruling is expected in October.
In Friday’s ruling for Lee, the Seoul Central District Court acknowledged two things that could work against Park -- that Park and Choi are accomplices in receiving bribes from Lee and that Park actively and directly asked for money from Lee.
|Lee Jae-yong, Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil (Yonhap)|
The disgraced Park and Choi, Park’s friend of 40 years, have been on trial since May for conspiring to receive bribes from local firms including Samsung Group to help Choi pursue personal interests.
The court said that the 8.92 billion won ($8 million) Lee paid in the form of donations to a Choi-controlled foundation and sponsorship to Choi’s horse-riding daughter had been a bribe, acknowledging the three-way money-for-political favors deal.
“When a public servant conspires with a non-public servant to receive bribes and the non-public servant, who is an accomplice, takes the bribes, it is the same as the public servant taking it,” the judge Kim Jin-dong said, referring to the Park-Choi relationship.
Ex-President Park has argued that she had not forced firms to donate money to the Choi-controlled entities and she had not shared any economic benefits with Choi. She claimed that the requests for donations were only a part of her policy drive to promote culture and sports in the country.
According to criminal law, those who are found guilty of offering bribes are punished by a prison term of up to five years. Those who are convicted of receiving bribes, however, are subjected to a heavier punishment -- at least five years in prison and up to life sentence when the amount is more than 100 million won.
“We can see that the ex-president followed up with the issue of Samsung Group’s leadership transfer and asked for financial support for (Choi’s daughter) Chung. And the accused offered the money in anticipation of a favor from Park,” the judge Kim said.
“Park was actively and considerably involved in Choi using the foundations as a means to pursue her personal interests,” he said.
The court said that Samsung Group expected the ex-president to help Samsung Group achieve a smooth transition of leadership from its ailing Chairman Lee Kun-hee to his only son Lee Jae-yong through the 2015 merger of its two affiliates.
And Lee was aware of Choi’s power and influence as Park’s confidante before donating the money, which is why the court saw it as a bribe.
Out of 43.3 billion won -- the total amount of the money which the special counsel viewed as paid or promised by Samsung Group -- the court acknowledged only 8.92 billion won as a bribe.
“In response to the president’s active demands, it seems that Samsung Group passively offered bribes,” the court said, adding such requests were made during three one-on-one meetings between Park and Lee.
The court, however, did not see the donations worth 22 billion won for the Choi-controlled K-Sports Foundation and Mir Foundation -- to which other local firms also contributed money to -- as a bribe.
The fate for Park remains to be seen, but the conviction of Lee is likely to take a toll on Park.
Many of the key witnesses and her former subordinates have already turned their backs on the ex-president during court proceedings, saying that they had committed alleged wrongdoings under Park’s order.
“Bribery always involves two parties -- one to give the bribe and one to take the bribe. As Lee was found guilty of bribery, Park is likely to be convicted, too,” Kim Nam-geun, a lawyer belonging to a left-wing civic group the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, told The Korea Herald.
“The court did not consider the donations for the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation as bribes because Lee only passively responded to Park‘s request. Given that, Park is likely to be found guilty of abuse of power for that.”
Other than the bribery charge, Park is also accused of abusing her authority to help Choi’s business interests, exclude artists critical of Park from state support and sack government officials who refused to aid or abet her wrongdoings.
“I think that the ruling heightened the possibility for Park to be found guilty as the court acknowledged that Park had played a leading role in taking bribes,” lawyer Jo Tae-jin from Seo Law said.
“I think that Lee’s sentence will be reduced at the High Court.”
The ruling for Samsung Group’s de facto chief is not yet final. Both Lee and Special Counsel Park Young-soo, who demanded the court to issue a 10-year prison term for Lee, appealed against the decision Sunday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)