There are several factors to be considered about the trial of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung Group, who has been charged with bribery and other suspicions stemming from a corruption scandal involving ousted President Park Geun-hye.
Firstly, there is the concern that the trial, which began four months ago, is being affected by something other than strict legal arguments. One such indication comes from the team of Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo. Given the nature of the case, it is understandable that Park Young-soo’s team is mindful of public opinion. Indeed, the public is following closely the trial connected to a case in which the holder of the nation’s highest office and the heir to the largest conglomerate were implicated in corruption masterminded by the president’s mysterious confidante Choi Soon-il.
Since being impeached and removed from office by the Constitutional Court, Park Geun-hye has paid the price for some of her misdeeds, like abuse and misuse of her presidential power to help Choi. However, the disgraced former president, who is under trial in a criminal court, is still unpopular among the general public. Park Geun-hye deserves condemnation, but the concern is that some prosecutors, including those on the independent counsel’s team, might try to ride the wave of negative public sentiment toward the former leader and other key figures in the scandal.
The Lee trial is one good case in point. In demanding a longer-than-expected prison term of 12 years for Lee, independent counsel Park Young-soo said the case is a typical one of corruption based on collusion between the government and a business, and that it severely undermined the constitutional values of sovereignty and economic democratisation. This sounds like solemn political preaching.
He argued that fair judgement and strict punishment of Lee would help restore national dignity and lay the platform for economic growth and national unity.
Again, this sounds more like a statement from a politician than a prosecutor. Achieving economic growth and national unity is not the primary concern of prosecutors. They can leave such things to political and civic leaders.
Prosecutor Park Young-soo even called the case “the trial of the century”. A designation like that is supposed to be made by third parties, not a direct party to the case. Obviously, fame and heroism must matter to the special prosecutor.
It is unfortunate if that was the background for the Park team’s decision to demand a 12-year prison term for Lee.
Park’s team argued that Lee should be punished for soliciting government favours to ease the succession process at Samsung in return for bribes. But bribery carries a maximum sentence of five years. This is seen as one of the reasons Park’s team charged Lee with capital flight overseas and embezzlement, which can carry prison sentences of over five years.
Some legal professionals say the special prosecutor filed the capital flight charges to seek a longer prison term for Lee. They argued that Samsung sent money on the overseas dressage training of Choi’s daughter not for – as with most capital flight cases – the purpose of hiding assets in foreign countries.
Lee and his defence counsels insisted that work for the power transfer at Samsung had been scheduled and that donations to Choi were made under pressure and coercion from Park Geun-hye and Choi.
Park Young-soo’s team also charged Lee with embezzlement for allegedly using company funds to support Choi, and perjury for making false testimony at a parliamentary hearing. But what’s certain is that the court’s judgement on the bribery accusation will determine the fate of Lee, which also may affect the trials of ex-president Park, Choi and other key figures. Judges in the case should make a decision based only on evidence and statutes.