A court in South Korea on Friday sentenced Samsung’s billionaire heir-apparent Lee Jae-yong to five years in prison for corruption. Mr Lee was accused of bribery in a scandal that also led to the impeachment of South Korea’s former president. The case has gripped the public amid growing anger against South Korea’s biggest companies, known as chaebols.
Prosecutors had originally sought a 12-year sentence for Mr Lee in a trial that was closely enmeshed with the case of former president Park Geun-hye, who is also now on trial.Also known as Jay Y Lee, the de facto head of the world’s largest smartphone maker had been detained since February on a string of corruption charges.
These included including bribery, embezzlement and hiding assets overseas. The 49-year-old was accused of giving donations worth 41bn won ($36m; £29m) to non-profit foundations operated by Choi Soon-sil, a friend of South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye, in return for political favors. Prosecutors alleged that the donations were made to Ms Park’s confidante to win government support for a big restructuring of Samsung that would strengthen Mr Lee’s control over Samsung Electronics.
A lawyer for Mr Lee has already said they will appeal against the decision. “We are confident the ruling will be overturned,” lawyer Song Wu-cheol told reporters after the ruling, according to Reuters. Nevertheless this ruling represents a huge blow to South Korea’ biggest and most well-known business empire. Since the verdict, Samsung shares fell by 1%.
The conviction raises questions about Mr Lee’s leadership of the conglomerate. He has been standing in as chairman since his father, Lee Kun-hee, suffered a heart attack in 2014.The Samsung scandal contributed to President Park’s eventual impeachment. Her friend Choi Soon-sil has already been jailed for three years for corruption.
Despite Mr Lee’s incarceration since February, its business has been booming. Last month, it overtook Apple to become the world’s most profitable technology company after raking in quarterly profits of $9.9bn It also recently eclipsed Intel as the world’s largest chip maker — a title the US company had held since 1993. But the conviction will raise questions about Samsung’s long-term direction and whether the group should continue to be run as a family dynasty.
A verdict in Ms Park’s trial is expected in October. The corruption scandal, which first came to light in October last year, exposed the close nexus between the country’s business and political elite and triggered mass demonstrations that culminated with the impeachment of Ms Park in March. Since then, the country has elected a new leader, Moon Jae-in, who has pledged to crack down on corporate excess and cronyism, and focus on the well being of ordinary South Korean citizens.