By Alex Jensen
SEOUL (AA) - Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong gave a rare smile to photographers outside Seoul High Court Monday, as he walked free just months into a five-year prison sentence handed down last August.
The release of Lee, 49, could have a knock-on effect because of his link to a wider presidential scandal that led to the impeachment of ex-leader Park Geun-hye, who is still awaiting her fate concerning over 21 corruption charges.
The court decided to cut Lee's sentence in half with a four-year stay of execution after finding insufficient evidence to back a lower court's ruling that he was guilty on five counts, ranging from offering bribes worth millions of dollars to concealing assets abroad.
Prosecutors had sought a 12-year prison term on appeal, with the case centering on the claim that Samsung had bought the Park government's support for a 2015 merger that would smooth the company's succession of power from ailing Chairman Lee Kun-hee to his son, Lee Jae-yong.
The junior Lee retained a suspended sentence Monday due to Seoul High Court's decision that he "passively" allowed Samsung to sponsor the equestrian career of Park's close friend Choi Soon-sil's daughter -- although his legal team plans to appeal, according to local news agency Yonhap.
Moreover, the outlook may have become even more negative for the former president with the court blaming Park and Choi for "coercing Samsung executives".
The ruling Democratic Party swiftly condemned the judgment for being "at odds with public sentiment".
Millions of people took to the streets over a series of weekends from late 2016 to protest against the Park government, which eventually led to a snap election and the rise to office of South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae-in.