SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - The South Korea Supreme Court on Thursday (Aug 29) ordered a retrial for Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, who had been convicted of corruption, in a scandal that unseated the president and trained public ire on corporate untouchables.
Lee, 51, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, was sentenced in 2017 to five years imprisonment for bribing a friend of former president Park Geun-hye as he sought to succeed his father and secure control of Samsung Group.
He was freed after a year in detention when the appellate Seoul High Court halved his sentence and suspended it for four years. Both Lee, who denies wrongdoing, and prosecutors appealed again.
The Supreme Court said the interpretation by the Seoul High Court on what constituted bribes by Samsung to the then president was too narrow.
The same court also ordered a retrial in Park's case citing procedural problems. She was impeached following the scandal and is serving a 25-year prison sentence, and her friend Choi Soon-sil, jailed for 20 years, both for bribery and other charges.
Lee was the latest in a series of conglomerate bosses to be convicted of corruption but receive a lenient sentence, drawing public calls for reform of big businesses often criticised for overly close relationships with political leaders.
The Supreme Court can uphold Lee's conviction and suspended sentence, or ask the Seoul High Court to reconsider its judgement. That could lead to the conviction being overturned, or to a tougher sentence, legal experts said.
"Politically, since the current government is still trying to get rid of corruption from the previous administration, the Supreme Court is more likely to send the case back to the appeals court, which could lead to a heavier sentence," said attorney Choi Jin-nyoung, who is not involved in the case.
The government is led by President Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer elected on an anti-corruption platform after Park's impeachment and weeks of protests.
The case centres on whether three horses donated by Samsung Group for the training of Choi's daughter, a competitive equestrian, should be considered bribes aimed at winning Park's favour.
Court documents showed Park asked Lee to help the daughter, and was convicted on grounds that the horses were bribes worth 3.7 billion won (S$4.2 million). However, the horses were not recognised as such in Lee's trial, helping reduce his sentence.
"The three horses, and whether there were unjust favours, will be central to the Court's decision," said lawyer Jun Ji-hyun. "South Koreans are paying attention to the case, given its political and business implications."
The ruling is scheduled for 2pm (1pm Singapore time) and will be broadcast live on television. Lee is not required to attend.
On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court was surrounded by a police cordon in anticipation of protests, with officers guarding the court gates, the subway entrance closed, and more than 10 buses blocking passages.
A few hundred pro-Park protesters were present, while an anti-Lee rally near the court was cut short by rain.
The ruling comes at a critical moment for both Samsung and its home country, as Japan's decision last month to restrict exports of key chipmaking chemicals following a diplomatic dispute threatens to disrupt production of memory chips, South Korea's biggest export item.
Lee has since been on a high-profile mission to tackle what he told his lieutenants was a "crisis".
Samsung, the world's biggest maker of memory chips and smartphones, is also facing falling profitability as prices of chips and display panels slide. It reported a 56 per cent drop in June-quarter profit and said Japan's curbs blurred its outlook.