SEOUL, South Korea (AP)— A South Korean appeals court Monday handed down a 2 ?-year suspended jail sentence for corruption to Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, clearing the way for him to be freed after nearly a year in prison and return to the company's leadership.
In a surprise decision, the Seoul High Court significantly reduced the lower court's ruling and rejected most bribery charges pressed against Lee by prosecutors who sought a 12-year prison term.
The appeals court said Lee was unable to reject the then-president's request to financially support her confidante Choi Soon-sil and was coerced to make the payment. The court found Lee still guilty of giving 3.6 billion won ($3.3 million) in bribery for the equestrian training of Choi's daughter.
Attorney Lee Injae, who is the Samsung heir's lawyer, told reporters outside the court that while he respects the court's courage and wisdom, he will still bring the decision to the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in South Korea, to fight the conviction. Prosecutors were expected to appeal the case to the Supreme Court as well.
Lee, 49 and the only son of Samsung's ailing chairman, was given a five-year prison term in August on bribery and other charges linked to a political scandal that took down former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The Samsung vice chairman pleaded not guilty to charges he used Samsung corporate funds to bribe Park and a confidante, seeking to consolidate his control over Samsung and facilitate a smooth transfer of corporate leadership from his father. The appeals court said there was no corporate succession issue at stake, rejecting the lower court's view.
The more lenient ruling surprised many who were expecting a tough stance from the appeals court.
The earlier ruling on Lee was seen as a departure from the previous court cases that had been criticized for being too lenient on white-collar crimes and especially on chiefs at chaebol, or the big conglomerates that helped South Korea's rapid industrialization.
Lee's case and the current trial of former President Park, are seen as tests of the country's commitment to ending cozy ties among South Korea's political and business elite. Those links once were seen as the key to South Korea's impressive rise from the ashes of its 1950-53 war but now blamed for corruption, inequality and stifling innovation.
"To a certain extent, this case started by the public's desire wanting to see the end in collusion between the government and big businesses," said Chung Sun-sup, head of corporate analysis firm Chaebul.com.
Before the final hearing at the appeals court Lee paid back 8 billion won ($7.3 million) to Samsung Electronics. The lower court had said Lee embezzled that amount from Samsung to bribe Choi.
Despite Lee's pleading not guilty, few had expected that he would walk out of prison.
"If he were found innocent or had received a suspended prison term, it would have flipped out the entire country," Chung said.