May 9, 2017 / 8:02 AM / 3 months ago

Samsung trial tests South Korea's rule of law

FILE PHOTO - Samsung Group chief, Jay Y. Lee arrives at the office of the independent counsel team in Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2017.Kim Hong-Ji

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - South Korea's rule of law is on trial. Bribery charges have turned Samsung's de facto leader, Jay Y. Lee, into a public enemy. A guilty verdict, if merited, could help rebuild trust in the system after an epic corruption scandal. It is equally important that he gets a fair trial, instead of being punished based on popular outrage.

The special prosecutor has dubbed this the "trial of the century". Among the allegations Lee is facing is that he ordered payments to outfits backed by a friend of former President Park Geun-hye, in exchange for state support for a controversial merger of two Samsung companies. He denies the charges.

The saga has taken South Korea into unfamiliar waters. Park is South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be forced out of office – leading to Tuesday's election. Samsung's bosses have been in legal trouble before. But before the third-generation Lee, none of them had been in handcuffs during a trial, or have actually had to serve a prison sentence. Lee's father was convicted in 1996 and again twelve years later for charges including bribery and tax evasion, but he received suspended sentences both times, which spared him from actual imprisonment, followed by presidential pardons. That has been a routine for other tycoons too.

Sending Lee away would show no one is above the law, not even the head of the nation's top conglomerate. But a guilty ruling is a good thing only if it comes out of an unbiased trial conducted with proper regard for due process, rather than a show trial and a conviction based on flimsy evidence.

That is necessarily not a given. In criminal cases, South Korean law is supposed to presume innocence until proven otherwise. But only 5 percent or so of defendants are acquitted in their first trials. And any judge ruling in Lee's favour would risk sparking a big backlash from the country's many Samsung-bashers. When a court denied an arrest warrant for Lee in January, the judge came under fire from all directions. Less than a month later, a second attempt to throw him in jail succeeded.

The trial has been progressing slowly so far, which points to the case's complexity. The best way forward is to go by the book.

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