Samsung Vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong, has been sentenced to five years in prison after finding him guilty of bribes and other crimes
A South Korean court sentenced Lee Jae-yong over role in scandal that led to impeachment of former president Park Guen-hye
Lee Jae had been accused of making large donations to foundations run by a close friend and confidante of the deposed South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, in return for political favours.
The court report according to South Korea’s Yonhap News agency that Lee had provided bribes anticipating support from Park, who was still president at the time.
Despite claims by his legal team that Lee had little involvement in the day-to-day running of Samsung, the court held on the fact that he had approved donations to Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, in return for securing government support for the contentious merger of two Samsung affiliates that would strengthen his control over the group.
Since his arrest in February, Lee has insisted the payments were made to Samsung without his knowledge, and with no expectation of favours from the Park administration.
Choi is alleged to have set up the foundations to support Park’s policy initiatives. Samsung has not denied donating money to the foundations, but said it was forced to do so by Park.
Lee, the scion of South Korea’s richest family and its biggest company, had been accused of offering $38m (£30m) in bribes to four entities controlled by Choi, to whom Park often turned for advice and allegedly gave access to government documents even though she did not have security clearance.
Investors are concerned that his enforced absence will create a leadership vacuum at Samsung – which has dozens of affiliates and assets of $322bn – and harm its ability to make key strategic decisions.
Other business figures to have stood trial in South Korea have traditionally received light sentences, fueling criticism that leaders of the country’s family-run conglomerates – or chaebol – are treated with unwarranted leniency by the courts.
They included Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee,who was convicted of tax evasion in 2009 and had a three-year sentence suspended, with judges citing his contribution to South Korea’s economic success and his “patriotism through business enterprise from job creation”. He was pardoned four months after the final ruling.
Park Sangin, a professor of economics at Seoul National University, said shortly before the verdict:
“Chaebol leaders used to get the same sentencing every time. There was even a saying called the ‘3-5 law’ – three years sentencing, five years’ probation.
“If Lee receives a heavy sentence, it can be seen as the shattering of the ‘too-big-to-jail’ trend of the past.”
Lee’s lawyers are expected to appeal, and the case could end up being decided by the country’s supreme court, possibly next year.