Judges said Lee, vice chairman of the world’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker Samsung Electronics, had been forced to offer bribes to then-president Park Geun-Hye and her close confidante.
Samsung Electronics, which last week reported record profits, is the flagship subsidiary of the giant Samsung group, by far the biggest of the family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebols that dominate Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
The chaebols played key roles in the South’s dramatic economic growth but have long had close and sometimes murky ties with political authorities. Commentators said Monday’s decision was in keeping with past lenient legal treatment of their leaders.
At his original trial Lee, 49, was convicted of a range of offences, including bribery, embezzlement, money laundering and perjury in parliament, in connection with the sprawling corruption scandal that brought down Park Geun-Hye.
The case centred on payments Samsung made to Park’s secret confidante Choi Soon-Sil, with prosecutors arguing they were intended to secure government favours.
He had been sentenced to five years in jail, making him the first Samsung chief to serve prison time, even though his father was twice convicted of criminal offences and his grandfather was earlier embroiled in scandal.
But the Seoul high court on Monday struck out most of the convictions and reduced the penalty on the remainder to a suspended prison sentence of two and a half years.
The court said Lee had been “forced” to offer Park bribes and there was “no evidence” that Lee explicitly demanded policy favours in return.
“Park Geun-Hye and Choi Soon-Sil should be seen as the main players in this scandal,” said the ruling, read out in court by one of the judges.
Lee walked out of the courthouse swinging the hands that had been cuffed every time he arrived and left the building since he was first detained in February last year, television pictures showed.
The badge bearing his prisoner number that had been pinned to his jacket earlier was gone, and he smiled — although he had appeared to have lost weight during his time in custody.
He was driven back to his detention centre for formalities before being released.
The Samsung group, whose revenues are equivalent to around a fifth of the country’s GDP, has lobbied hard against the convictions of Lee and four other senior executives. Shim Jung-Taik, an author of several books on Samsung and its corporate culture, said: “It shows that, in South Korea, politicians come and go but Samsung’s power never fades away.
“We still have this widespread mindset that ‘our economy will collapse without chaebols, and the chaebols will collapse unless they are controlled by the members of their founding families,” Shim told AFP.
– ‘Courage and wisdom’ –
The corruption scandal set off massive months-long protests across the nation last year that urged Park’s removal as well as punishment of the top tycoons who helped enrich Choi.
Samsung was the single biggest contributor to the two non-profit foundations controlled by Choi, which she allegedly used for personal gain.
But his lawyers argued that Samsung had been coerced to pay. One of them, Lee In-Jae, told reporters: “We express our sincere respect for the courage and wisdom of the court that exonerated Lee of some major accusations.”
They will launch a further appeal to the supreme court against the remaining convictions.
Lee has been the de facto head of the wider Samsung group since his father was left bedridden by a heart attack in 2014.
The four other Samsung Electronics executives convicted alongside Lee also had their convictions reduced, with the two who had been given prison terms similarly having their sentences suspended.
Both Park, formally impeached and removed from power last March, and Choi are currently in custody while on trial separately on multiple charges ranging from bribery to abuse of power.
Park is accused of offering policy favours to the businessmen, including Lee, who bribed Choi — Park’s close friend and the daughter of a shady religious figure who had been Park’s longtime mentor until his death in 1994.
Current South Korean President Moon Jae-In took power in May, sweeping to victory in the election that followed Park’s ousting with promises to “reform” the deep-rooted and sometimes corrupt ties between Seoul regulators and the chaebols.