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Samsung heir released from prison after appeal against bribery conviction

Lee Jae-yong, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. (second left), is surrounded by members of the media as he leaves the Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, South Korea, on Feb. 5, 2018.

JEAN CHUNG/BLOOMBERG

By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: February 5, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — The scion of South Korea's powerful Samsung dynasty has been released from prison after an appeals court on Monday decided to suspend the five-year sentence he received just six months ago.

Lee Jae-yong, the third-generation head of Samsung and the country's most influential businessman, had appealed the sentence, imposed in July after he was found guilty of charges including bribery, embezzlement and perjury. The charges related to his role in a sensational corruption scandal that triggered the impeachment of then-president Park Geun-hye, who is still on trial.

Special prosecutors, who had been seeking a 12-year prison term for the bribery charges, have also appealed.

The appellate court Monday overturned some of the charges, including part of the bribery charges and one charge of illegally transferring assets overseas.

The court said it was impossible to prove that Lee and Park had hatched the deal for which Lee was alleged to have paid a $1.6 million bribe to the president's confidante.

The court halved the sentence to 2-1/2 years and suspended the remainder of it for four years.

The decision is being widely viewed in South Korea as a sign that, despite the upheavals of the past two years, nothing has fundamentally changed in the relationship between big business conglomerates and country's authorities.

Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.

Lee, who is 49, maintained his innocence during a five-month-long trial last year that centered around accusations Samsung had paid or promised to pay $38 million in bribes to the president's confidante in return for favorable treatment from regulators.

This happened at a time that the Lee family, which maintains control of the Samsung behemoth through a complicated set of cross-shareholdings, was seeking approval for a crucial merger that would enable the family to pass control from Lee's father, who has been hospitalized in a coma since May 2014, to Lee Jae-yong.

Special prosecutors said that the Samsung heir arranged the deal during three face-to-face meetings with Park between 2014 and 2016.

His team of 28 lawyers argued that Lee was a hands-off manager who had no knowledge of the arrangement, which they said was organized by his subordinates.

But the three-judge bench of the Seoul Central District Court found Lee guilty of paying bribes totaling $6.4 million, which he embezzled from the company, and then lied about it.

Even without Lee at the helm, the conglomerate's flagship business, Samsung Electronics, has continued to flourish. Last week it announced a 74 percent increase in earnings in the final quarter of 2017, to $11.2 billion.

Samsung was founded by Lee's grandfather some 80 years ago as an exporter of fruit and dried fish but has since grown into a huge, diversified conglomerate that now comprises 60 different business units.

Lee's father promoted its expansion into the high-tech phones and televisions for which it is most famous today. Lee Jae-yong had been running the company after his father had a heart attack and fell into a coma, although he has officially been vice chairman while his father is alive.

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