Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was released Monday after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence dismissing most of his key charges in a bribery and corruption scandal that led to the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye last year.
The Seoul High Court sentenced Lee to 2 1/2 years in prison with a stay of execution for four years. He was immediately freed from a nearly yearlong incarceration.
The scion of South Korea's biggest conglomerate was sentenced to five years in prison on Aug. 25 for giving 8.8 billion won (US$8.1 million) to Park and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, in return for government backing for the merger of two key Samsung units, a process that was deemed vital for his leadership succession.
Special Counsel Park Young-soo had demanded 12 years in prison for Lee. Lee and the prosecution both appealed the ruling.
Reversing the lower court's ruling, the appeals court did not acknowledge that a leadership succession had been in place at Samsung as claimed by the prosecution. It found Samsung thus had no agenda for which it needed to make an "explicit or implicit request" to the former president, seeking government consent from the outset.
Still, the court found Lee guilty in that he "passively" complied with Park's request for the provision to sponsor the equestrian training of Choi's 22-year-old daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, a former dressage rider.
Two former top Samsung executives charged alongside Lee were also released on suspended sentences.
Choi Gee-sung, ex-head of Samsung's now-disbanded control tower Future Strategy Office and his then deputy Chang Choong-ki, each received two-year jail terms suspended for three years. They were given sentences of four years in the August ruling.
Lee, 50, was arrested on Feb. 17, 2017 and was indicted on five charges, including bribery, embezzlement and hiding assets overseas. The special counsel accused Lee of offering or promising 43.3 billion won to Park and Choi in the name of sponsoring the equestrian training of Chung.
The lower court found him guilty on all five counts but acknowledged only part of the bribes and tossed the pledged amount that was never paid. Lee pleaded not guilty.
But the appeals court cleared Lee on the count of hiding assets overseas, saying that the 3.6 billion won Samsung paid to Choi's Germany-based firm could be seen as kickbacks, but not as property he diverted overseas.
Monday's ruling also acquitted him of the charge that the tech giant donated 1.63 billion won as a bribe to a kids sports foundation run by Choi's family.
The appeals court noted that Park and Choi should take most of the blame in the case, as it was their collusion that forced big conglomerates to provide the illegal money.
"It's a case in which the former president Park, who held the most powerful authority in this country, coerced Samsung executives (into paying bribes) and Choi, who was blinded by distorted motherhood, pursued personal gain using her ties with Park."
It drew a contrast to the lower court's ruling, which determined the case be "a classic example of backscratching between political and capital powers."
Lee's legal counsel hailed the court decision, yet signaled his team will appeal the ruling on the bribery conviction regarding the equestrian sponsorship, which still stands.
"We respect the court's courage and wisdom to have delivered a not-guilty verdict for our client over the key charges," it said in a statement released afterwards. "Yet we will do our best in the next court proceeding to have the remaining charges cleared."(Yonhap)