The suspended prison term handed out to Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong on Monday divided the South Korean public, with liberal critics arguing the verdict shows courts are too soft on business tycoons and conservative groups hailing it as a reasonable decision unaffected by public sentiment.
The Seoul High Court had sentenced Lee to 2 1/2 years in prison with a stay of execution for four years on bribery and other charges stemming from a massive influence-peddling scandal that led to the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye.
Lee was immediately freed from a period of incarceration lasting nearly a year.
The case has been seen as a litmus test of South Korean courts' tolerance for owners of family-run chaebol. In many corruption cases in the past, courts sentenced tycoons to suspended or light terms, sometimes citing their contribution to the country's economy.
Liberal civic groups protested the verdict.
"This is a verdict letting him off in a far more undisguised manner than expected," said Ahn Jin-gul, secretary general of the civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. "It is questionable how the law can be so generous toward chaebol owners while so strict toward workers and ordinary people."
Another major civic group, the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, also denounced the ruling.
"We cannot help but see this as a verdict letting off Samsung in such a brazen manner," Kwon Oh-in, an official of the civic group, said. "I'm dumbfounded."
Kwon said that Lee's earlier sentence of five years in prison wasn't heavy at all, but the appeals court even lowered the sentence in what he called a "typical chaebol verdict."
On the other hand, conservative groups hailed the ruling.
"This is a reasonable verdict unafraid of public opinions," said Jeon Sam-hyun, secretary general of the Citizens United for Better Society, adding that he believes the court made the ruling according to evidence and the rule of law.
Jeon said the lower court's verdict, which determined that Lee colluded with the administration of former President Park Geun-hye, has been controversial due to the possibility of violation of the principle that trial should be based on evidence.
"From the perspective of evidence, (Lee) acted passively, rather than colluding," he said.
Choi Seung-no, vice chief of the Center for Free Enterprise, also said that the court made a wise decision according to law and evidence.
"This will serve as an opportunity for our society to move on a stable path according to law," he said.
Ordinary citizens were also divided.
"Whether it be chaebol or ordinary citizens, it's important for them to pay the price for their crimes in a fair manner. It will be helpful in creating a clean corporate culture," a 30-year-old office worker, who only gave her surname, Park, said. "A soft punishment like this will further foster collusion between politics and businesses."
But another office worker said the ruling could be good for the country's economy.
"I have been concerned that Samsung isn't going well since its leader was arrested," the 45-year-old said. "This suspended sentence is good for the sake of the country."
Political parties were torn as well.
The ruling Democratic Party said that the ruling is "at odds with public sentiment."
"All citizens hoped that the ruling would help sever collusive ties between politics and business, and herald the start of a new Republic of Korea," Park Wan-joo, the party's spokesman, told reporters.
"We think it is very regrettable that due to this suspended sentence, citizens have to voice concerns again that there is still an accumulated ill, which is 'guilt for the have-nots, no guilt for the haves,'" he added.
Hong Joon-pyo, the leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, said that the ruling showed the "judiciary is alive" to deliver justice.
"I express my respect to the court for rendering a ruling without wavering due to public opinion," Hong wrote on Facebook. "I again pay my respects to the appeals court for showing a free Republic of Korea remains alive."
The minor opposition Bareun Party said in a statement that following the ruling, the government and the corporate sector can work together to reflect on themselves and create a new culture free from corruption. (Yonhap)