Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong faced the first session of his appeals trial on Thursday over the massive bribery case that triggered the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye early this year.
Dressed in a dark suit and looking slimmer, the heir to South Korea's richest conglomerate was escorted by guards to a courtroom in the Seoul High Court in southern Seoul, nearly seven weeks after he was sentenced to five years in prison by the lower court.
The Seoul Central District Court's ruling found Lee, 49, guilty of providing 7.2 billion won (US$6.35 million) in kickbacks to Park's longtime friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil to fund her daughter's equestrian training.
Lee was indicted in February for offering or pledging 43.3 billion won in bribes to win government backing for a merger of two Samsung units seen as a vital step to the leadership transfer in the sprawling business group from his father Lee Kun-hee.
The lower court acknowledged only a partial amount as bribes, saying the 20 billion won Samsung donated to two foundations allegedly controlled by Choi cannot be seen as illegal provisions.
But the court convicted him and four other top Samsung executives involved of bribery, embezzlement and other charges, ruling that there was "an implied request" from Lee to the ex-president about putting the merger plan through, given that the state pension fund owns a controlling stake in one of the Samsung affiliates.
In the appellate trial, the special counsel and Lee's lawyers staged a fierce debate against each other in objection to the original verdict.
The special prosecution team argued that Samsung's demand was "explicit" as the private memos of Park's former secretary admitted by court as evidence show that there was clear understanding between Lee and Park over the merger approval.
It also disputed the amount of the bribes acknowledged in the original ruling. It said it is incongruous to judge the nature of the provision only based on the ostensible reasons Park had stated that were to benefit public interest.
It also asked the court to reconsider the sentencing.
"The succession master plan was designed to inevitably maximize Lee's own interest at the cost of its subsidiaries, shareholders and furthermore, the subscribers of the national pension," the special prosecution team said. It demanded 12 years for Lee in the lower court.
The defense counsel struck back in denial and insisted his innocence.
Lee's lawyers told the court there was no request of any kind, reiterating their argument that the succession scenario presented by the prosecution is all hypothetical as Lee belongs only to Samsung Electronics as its vice head and has never been in a decision-making position as the group's chief.
"How would the president recognize a hypothetical matter that the prosecution has even failed to verify in the indictment?" the defense counsel said.
Lee's lawyers also pointed out the fact that the memos from Park's aide are hearsay that has not been proven through Park's testimony as her remarks.