Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was released Monday after an appellate court handed him a suspended sentence dismissing most of the key charges against him 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.
Two former group executives were also released on suspended sentences. They were given four-year jail terms by the lower court.
Lee, 50, was arrested on Feb. 17, 2017 on five charges, including bribery, embezzlement and hiding assets overseas.
A lower court sentenced him to five years in prison, on Aug. 25, for giving 8.8 billion won (US$8.1 million) in bribes to Park and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, in return for government backing of the merger of two key Samsung units, a process that was deemed vital to tighten Lee's control of South Korea's biggest conglomerate. The prosecution had demanded 12 years in prison for Lee.
But the appeals court acknowledged as bribes only some 3.6 billion won which Samsung sent to Choi's German-based firm to sponsor the equestrian training of her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra.
The court found Lee "passively" complied with Park's request to sponsor the former dressage rider after he was apparently intimidated by Park and Choi.
Lee was cleared of hiding assets overseas, a charge that could carry the heaviest punishment -- a minimum five-year sentence -- among the five charges.
The court found that Samsung sent the money overseas as kickbacks, not for the purpose of concealing it.
The court also ruled that Samsung's 1.63 billion won donation to a kids sports foundation run by Choi's family was not a bribe.
The court did not accept the prosecution's claim that Samsung offered bribes in return for government support for his scheme to inherit group control from his ailing father.
"Samsung had no agenda for which it needed to make an explicit or implicit request to the former president," the court said.
Monday's ruling also implied that Park and Choi should take most of the blame in the case as they forced big conglomerates to provide illegal money.
"Former president Park, who held the most powerful authority in this country, coerced Samsung executives, and Choi, who was blinded by distorted motherhood, pursued personal gains using her ties with Park."
It contrasted with the lower court's view that the case be "a classic example of backscratching between political and capital powers."
Lee's legal counsel welcomed the court decision, yet signaled his team will appeal the ruling on the bribery conviction regarding the equestrian sponsorship.
The prosecution said it will also appeal the ruling.
Lee left the Seoul Detention Center later in the day. Wearing a black suit and keeping a placid facial expression, he stood before a swarm of media and bowed in apology to the public.
"I am sorry for not showing the best side of me ... the past year has been the most precious time of self-reflection," he told reporters. "I will look at things more carefully from now on."
When asked what his next plan was, Lee said, "I need to go and see the chairman," referring to his ailing father Lee Kun-hee, who's been bedridden following a heart attack in 2014.
He got in a black sedan. It took some time for the vehicle to leave the site as about a dozen of his supporters were tangled up with members of the media. Some 90 riot police were dispatched to the detention center in case of any clashes. (Yonhap)