Billionaire Samsung heir convicted in bribery scandal that brought down president

A South Korean court has found Jay Y. Lee guilty of multiple crimes, including bribery, and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Jay Y. Lee, 49, sentenced to five years in prison in rare Seoul court ruling

Prosecutors pushed for a 12-year sentence to Jay Y. Lee, heir to the Samsung Group fortune. (Chung Sung-Jun/Reuters)

The billionaire head of South Korea's Samsung Group, Jay Y. Lee, was jailed for five years for bribery on Friday after a six-month trial over a scandal that brought down the president.

Lee had paid bribes in anticipation of favours from then president Park Geun-hye, according to a landmark ruling by a Seoul court, which also found him guilty of hiding assets abroad, embezzlement and perjury.

Lee, the 49-year-old heir to one of the world's biggest corporate empires, has been held since February on charges that he bribed Park to help secure control of a conglomerate that owns Samsung Electronics, the world's leading smartphone and chip maker, and has interests ranging from pharmaceutical drugs and home appliances to insurance and hotels.

Samsung Electronics did not have any immediate comment.

During the trial, Samsung acknowledged it offered to donate about $48 million Cdn to entities backed by Park's close friend, Choi Soon-sil, including $7.5 million to sponsor the equestrian career of Choi's daughter. In return for the contributions, prosecutors say, Samsung sought government support for a controversial 2015 merger of two of its affiliates, which helped tighten Lee's control over the conglomerate.

Lee denied wrongdoing. One of his lawyers, Song Wu-cheol, said Lee would appeal the lower court ruling.

"The entire verdict is unacceptable," Song said, adding that he was confident his client's innocence would be affirmed by a higher court.

Under South Korean law, sentences of more than three years can not be suspended. The five year-sentence is one of the longest prison terms given to a South Korean business leader.

Park is facing her own corruption trial, with a ruling expected later this year. Prosecutors have argued that Park and Lee two took part in the same act of bribery so Lee's conviction would appear ominous for Park.

Ouster former president Park Geun-hye faces her own corruption trial, with a verdict expected later this year. (Kim Jong-Ji/Reuters)

Hundreds of rowdy, diehard Park supporters rallied outside the court earlier in the day to demand Lee's acquittal.

Samsung, founded in 1938 by Lee's grandfather, is a household name in South Korea and a symbol of the country's dramatic rise from poverty following the 1950-53 Korean War. But over the years, it has also come to epitomize the cosy ties between politicians and powerful family-controlled business groups which have been implicated in a series of corruption scandals.

South Koreans, who once applauded the groups for catapulting the country into a global economic power, now criticize them for holding back the economy and squeezing smaller businesses.

South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, who replaced Park after a May 9 election, has pledged to rein in the chaebols, empower minority shareholders and end the practice of pardoning corporate tycoons convicted of white-collar crime.

With files from The Associated Press