Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong is now a free man after a South Korean court suspended his five-year jail term for bribing the country’s ex-president.
An appeals court upheld parts of the conviction but used discretion to order the release of the executive. South Korea’s Supreme Court is expected, however, to quickly appeal against the decision.
The Samsung heir’s case gripped the public amid growing anger against the country’s biggest companies, known as chaebols that contributed to the ouster of the Asian country’s ex-president Park Geun-hye. The accusations against Lee were part of one of the largest influence-peddling scandals in the country’s history.
The court reduced Lee’s sentence to two and a half years from the original five and suspended it, giving way to his release from custody.
The decision is seen as a blow to South Korean prosecutors who had hoped the longer sentence would send a strong and firm signal that the authorities would no longer mete out only light punishments for law-breaking corporate titans.
The chaebol, as the giant companies are known, have dominated South Korea’s economy for decades. Early South Korean governments “pampered” them by giving them tax benefits, cheap electricity, and protection from overseas competition. In return for such favors, the chaebol were expected to contribute to government projects — or even to funnel money to the coffers of officials and their relatives and associates.
The South Korean government has often responded with light punishments for business leaders caught in corruption scandals. Many chaebol bosses convicted of crimes have been pardoned or only given suspended sentences. Some even continued to run their business empires from prison.
Lee was indicted last year for bribing Park to strengthen his hold over Samsung’s businesses. Park met with him and other chaebol bosses to seek donations for the foundations controlled by a confidant of the president’s, Choi Soon-sil. Only months after said meetings, Samsung has donated millions of dollars to the foundations and gave millions more to fund the training of South Korean equestriennes including the daughter of Choi.