A Seoul court on Monday sentenced Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong to 2 1/2 years in prison in a retrial of a bribery case involving former President Park Geun-hye and ordered him returned to prison.
The Seoul High Court gave Lee, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., the prison term for bribing Park and her longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, to win government support for a smooth father-to-son transfer of managerial power at Samsung. Park was later impeached and ousted from presidency for corruption and abuse of power.
“Samsung’s compliance committee is not seen as effective enough to be considered one of the sentencing factors,” the court said, delivering the verdict.
The court referred to the fact that Samsung launched the committee in February to monitor the company’s compliance with laws and ethics, after the same court ordered Lee in October 2019 to devise measures for preventing ethical lapses at Samsung.
The company had pinned high hopes on the committee working to the benefit of the embattled Lee in his legal battle and possibly getting him a suspended sentence.
Upon hearing the verdict, Lee stared forward blankly for a while. When the judges left the courtroom, he flopped into a chair and talked with his lawyers. He was taken into custody at court, less than three years after he was released on a suspended sentence.
The 52-year-old Lee was charged in February 2017 with giving 29.8 billion won (US$27.4 million) worth of bribes and promising to give more.
In 2017, he was sentenced to five years in prison for providing a total of 8.9 billion won in support for Choi’s daughter’s equestrian training and a donation to a sports foundation run by Choi’s family. But he was freed the following year after an appeals court sentenced him to a suspended prison term of 2 1/2 years, based on the revised amount of bribes at 3.6 billion won.
In August 2019, the top court ruled Lee offered 8.6 billion won in total in bribes and remanded the case to the appeals court for retrial.
The verdict on Monday dashed hopes held by his supporters and other corporate leaders who have asked the court for leniency toward the Samsung scion, citing his role in helping overcome the economic difficulties brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Calling the ruling unfair, some of his supporters protested against the ruling at the courtroom in tears.
“The nature of the case is the former president’s abuse of power, which infringed the business’ freedom and property rights,” said Lee In-jae, one of Lee’s lawyers. “Given that, the ruling is very regrettable.”
It was, however, widely welcomed by anti-corruption activists who have demanded the judiciary show a strong willingness to tackle the cozy relations between the industry and political elite, often blamed for the country’s poor corporate governance.