Seoul's High Court has sentenced Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-Yong to 30 months behind bars for bribery, concealment of criminal proceeds, and embezzlement.
South Korean prosecutors originally indicted Lee in 2017 following a wider bribery dragnet focusing on former president Park Geun-Hee. Lee was accused of paying $37.6m to Choi Soon-sil, a close "confidant" of Park, for favours that would prove commercially and personally advantageous.
These bribes took the form of monetary payments to nonprofits and business entities controlled by Choi, as well as the gift of thoroughbred horses to be used by Choi's horse-riding daughter, Chung Yoo-Ra. In exchange, Lee received government sign-off on deals that would allow him to cement control of Samsung.
In August 2017, Lee was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment on one of the bribery charges while he appealed the others. Including pre-trial detention, he served one year before the Seoul appeals court dismissed elements of his conviction and reduced his sentence to two-and-a-half years, suspended.
In 2019, the country's Supreme Court voided the decision of the appeal court and ordered a retrial, arguing its interpretation of what constituted a bribe was too narrow. He was indicted on the fresh charges late last year.
The time served will count against this latest sentencing, meaning Lee will likely be released by mid-2022 at the latest. But his legal troubles won't end there as he faces an accounting fraud and stock manipulation probe related to the 2015 merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries.
The deal helped Lee, who was a major shareholder in Cheil, cement his control of the wider Samsung parent company. Although the deal won government approval, it attracted fierce criticism from investors, most notably US firm Elliott Management Corporation, which argued the merger under-valued Samsung C&T, while over-valuing Cheil Industries.
Meanwhile, President Park and her former confidant, Choi, are serving prison terms of 25 years and 20 years respectively.
News of Lee's latest conviction attracted dismay in Korean business circles, with the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) saying Lee had helped "sustain the Korean economy" amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It also expressed concern about the emergence of a leadership vacuum at the top of Samsung.
Lee was appointed vice chairman in 2012, assuming de-facto control of the company in 2014 following the heart attack of his father, Lee Kun-hee. The senior Lee subsequently lapsed into a coma and remained in a vegetative state until he died in October 2020.
Lee was taken into custody after the ruling and his lawyer told several outlets in a statement that the "essence of the case is that a former president abused power to infringe upon the freedom and property rights of a private company... Given that nature, the court's decision is regrettable."
The Register has asked Samsung to comment. ®