The billionaire chief of Samsung has been sentenced to five years in prison for bribery and other crimes in a stunning downfall for the heir to South Korea’s biggest family fortune.
Seoul Central District Court said Lee Jae-yong, 49, was guilty of offering bribes to Park Geun-hye when she was South Korea’s president, and to Park’s close friend, to get government support for efforts to cement his control over the Samsung empire.
The revelations that led to Lee’s arrest in February fed public outrage which contributed to Park’s removal as president.
A panel of three judges also found Lee guilty of embezzling Samsung funds, hiding assets overseas, concealing profit from criminal acts and perjury. Prosecutors had sought a 12-year prison term.
Lee was accused of offering £30 billion in bribes to four entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of Park, in exchange for government help with a merger that strengthened Lee’s control over Samsung after his father suffered a heart attack in 2014.
Lee, vice chairman at Samsung Electronics and the Samsung founder’s grandson, claimed innocence during the court hearing.
The verdict is the latest convulsion in a political scandal that prompted millions of South Koreans to protest last autumn, culminating in the removal and arrest of Park as well as the arrests of Choi and Lee.
Park was removed from office in March. She and Choi are both currently on trial.
Judges pointed to an arrangement in which Samsung bankrolled equestrian training for Choi’s daughter as proof of Lee’s knowledge of what was happening.
They said Lee was aware that Park, president at the time, wanted Samsung to sponsor the equestrian training.
Samsung secretively provided a huge amount of money to Choi’s German-based company that paid for the training and exorbitantly priced foreign horses worth 3.6 billion won (£2.5 million) were part of the bribes, the verdict said.
Other former Samsung executives charged with Lee were also found guilty.
Choi Gee-sung, a mentor of Lee, and Chang Choong-ki were sentenced to four years. Two other former executives received suspended prison terms.
The ruling in Lee’s case can be appealed against twice. Samsung will appeal the ruling immediately, company lawyer Song Woo-cheol said.