Samsung heir freed from jail by South Korean appeals court

Close ties between giant family firms and judiciary sparks public anger

Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong (R) walks out from a court in Seoul on Monday after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence. Photograph: Dong-A Ilb/AFP/Getty Images

Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong (R) walks out from a court in Seoul on Monday after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence. Photograph: Dong-A Ilb/AFP/Getty Images

 

The heir to the giant Samsung conglomerate Lee Jae-yong walked free on Monday after an appeals court in South Korea gave him a 2½ year suspended sentence for corruption in a case that toppled former president Park Geun-hye.

The Seoul High Court suspended his sentence for four years and the ruling clears the way for the 50-year-old vice-chairman of South Korea’s biggest conglomerate to resume his role at the helm of the company his grandfather founded, after serving one year in prison.

The ruling will do little to assuage fears in South Korea that members of the giant family-owned chaebols receive preferential treatment from the law.

In August, a lower court sentenced Lee to five years for giving 8.8 billion won (€6.5 million) in bribes to Park, who quit in March after her impeachment, and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil.

Merger

The money was reportedly paid to ensure government backing for a merger of two key Samsung units, a key element in Lee’s attempt to gain control of the conglomerate.

Many South Koreans feel the chaebols and the government enjoy too cosy a relationship, and online postings showed that many had been pleased with the initial sentence of five years in jail as it marked a departure from rulings favouring white-collar criminals in South Korea.

Prosecutors had sought 12 years in prison for Lee.

According to the Yonhap news agency, Lee left the Seoul Detention Centre bearing a placid facial expression. He bowed and apologised to the public.

“I am sorry for not showing the best side of me ... the past one year has been the most precious time for self-reflection,” he told reporters. “I will look at all things more carefully from now on.”

The appeals court dismissed the payments as bribes, but did acknowledge that he had sent 3.6 billion won (€2.7 million) Choi’s German-based company to sponsor equestrian training for her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, who had coveted Olympic glory.

South Koreans took to social media and online news portals to express their anger at the ruling, and also at the particular judge involved, condemning what they described as the “Republic of Samsung”.

The court decided that Lee had “passively” complied with the ex-president’s request for sponsorship of the young equestrian.

“Samsung had no agenda for which it needed to make an explicit or implicit request to the former president,” the court said.

Charges

He was cleared of the more serious charges of hiding assets overseas, a charge that carries a minimum five-year sentence, and the court found Samsung had sent the money overseas as kickbacks, not for the purpose of concealing it.

His first stop after his release was to visit a Samsung hospital where his father has been hospitalised since a heart attack in 2014.

Prosecutors said they would appeal the court’s ruling, making it almost certain the case will go to the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in South Korea.

Liberal civic organisations expressed their anger at the verdict.

“This is a verdict letting him off in a far more undisguised manner than expected,” Ahn Jin-gul, secretary general of the civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, told Yonhap. “It is questionable how the law can be so generous toward chaebol owners while so strict toward workers and ordinary people.”