Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was freed Thursday, as a Seoul appeals court cleared him of major charges and handed down a suspended sentence.
The Seoul High Court overturned a lower court’s five-year sentence and handed down two years and six months in prison suspended for four years for bribery -- rejecting the special counsel’s argument that it was linked to his succession. Prosecutors had maintained a 12-year prison term for Lee.
The 50-year-old scion of the biggest conglomerate in South Korea was immediately released after nearly a year behind bars following his detention in February last year.
“I apologize for disappointing all. The past year has been a time for me to look back on myself. I will take more caution and do better,” Lee said, leaving the court after the verdict was read.
Asked if he would appeal, he said he would, and took off to visit his ailing father, Lee Kun-hee. His father remains at Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul after he was hospitalized for a heart attack in 2014.
Lee Jae-yong had faced five charges, including embezzlement and hiding assets overseas.
Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong (right) leaves the Seoul Detention House in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday as he was set free in an appeals trial. (Yonhap)
The appeals court overturned the lower court’s ruling on major charges against Lee, which included providing illegal funds to former President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, in return for government backing for a merger of two key Samsung units.
The prosecution said that Samsung provided some 51 billion won ($46.9 million) to Park and Choi in various forms, such as donations and sponsorships to public foundations operated by Choi.
The court also acquitted Lee of the charge that he deliberately hid assets. It only partly admitted Lee had falsely testified before the National Assembly at a hearing last year.
At Monday’s sentencing, the court found Lee guilty of providing some 3.6 billion won to sponsor the equestrian training of Choi’s 22-year-old daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, a former dressage rider.
As for four top Samsung executives who were put on trial for charges linked to Lee, the appeals court lowered the charges, and gave suspended terms to all, including Choi Gee-sung, former head of Samsung’s now-disbanded control tower Future Strategy Office, and his former deputy, Chang Choong-ki, who had been sentenced to four years in prison by the lower court.
The court, on the other hand, viewed former President Park and her confidante Choi as joint principal offenders to the bribery case.
“Former President Park, who held the utmost power in the country threatened the executives of the biggest corporate, Samsung. A close friend of Park, Choi, illegally sought to fulfill self-interest motivated by ill-placed maternal instinct,” the appeals court said.
“The defendants were aware their equestrian sponsorship to Chung constituted bribery, but could not reject their demand,” it added.
Monday’s ruling is likely to influence Park and Choi’s trials, which are directly linked to the massive corruption scandal which led to Park’s ouster in March last year.
Park had reportedly submitted a petition asking for the favorable handling of Lee last month, saying she did not take any illegal solicitation from him and that she also did not know Samsung had given financial support to her friend’s daughter, Chung.
Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong speaks to reporters upon leaving the Seoul Detention House on Monday. (Yonhap)
Park, who was arrested on March 31 and indicted on April 17, has since been detained at a correctional facility just outside Seoul. She will continue to stand trial while under detention until the first ruling, expected in early February.
Special counsel Park Young-soo and his team expressed disappointment over the court’s decision and said they would appeal.
Lee had previously denied all charges, saying that he had only passively taken up the requests from the former president. He also insisted he did not need help from the government as claimed, since he was “confident” of proving his leadership ability to executives and investors after he inherited his position.
By Jo He-rim (email@example.com