The billionaire head of South Korea’s Samsung Group, Jay Y. Lee, was sentenced to five years in jail for bribery on Friday in a watershed for the country’s decades-long economic order dominated by powerful, family-run conglomerates.
After a six-month trial over a scandal that brought down the then president, Park Geun-hye, a court ruled that Lee had paid bribes in anticipation of favours from Park.
The court also found Lee guilty of hiding assets abroad, embezzlement and perjury.
Lee, the 49-year-old heir to one of the world’s biggest corporate empires, has been held since February on charges that he bribed Park to help secure control of a conglomerate that owns Samsung Electronics, the world’s leading smartphone and chip maker, and has interests ranging from drugs and home appliances to insurance and hotels.
Lee, who emerged stony-faced from the Seoul courtroom in a dark suit, but without a tie, and holding a document envelope, was escorted by justice ministry officials back to his detention centre.
“This case is a matter of Lee Jae-yong and Samsung Group executives, who had been steadily preparing for Lee’s succession … bribing the president,” Seoul Central District Court Judge Kim Jin-dong said, using Lee’s Korean name.
Kim said that as the group’s heir apparent, Lee “stood to benefit the most” from any political favours for Samsung.
Lee denied wrongdoing, and one of his lawyers, Song Wu-cheol, said he would appeal.
“The entire guilty verdict is unacceptable,” Song said, adding he was confident his client’s innocence would be affirmed by a higher court. The case is expected to be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, likely next year.
The five year-sentence – one of the longest given to a South Korean business leader – is a landmark for South Korea, where the family-run conglomerates – or chaebols – have long been revered for helping transform the once war-ravaged country into a global economic powerhouse.
But they have more recently been criticized for holding back the economy and stifling small businesses and start-ups.
Samsung, a symbol of the country’s rise from poverty following the 1950-53 Korean War, has come to epitomize the cosy and sometimes corrupt ties between politicians and the chaebols.
“The ruling is a turning point for chaebols,” said Chang Sea-jin, a business professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “In the past, chaebols weren’t afraid of laws because they were lenient. Now, Lee’s ruling sets a precedent for strict enforcement of laws, and chaebols should be wary.”
Under South Korean law, sentences of more than three years cannot be suspended.
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