SEOUL, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Samsung Group heir Jay Y. Lee appeared at a Seoul courtroom on Friday for the start of a bribery trial that could result in a tougher sentence after South Korea’s top court ordered a review of his graft case.
Lee stepped out of a van to a throng of journalists and made a brief comment but did not answer questions about the accusation he gave bribes to influence former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“I feel very sorry for causing concerns for many people,” a sombre Lee said, bowing his head and walking into the Seoul High Court as anti-Samsung protesters jeered.
The Supreme Court overturned in August part of an appeals court bribery conviction against Samsung’s de facto chief, who had been given a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence for seeking favours from former president Park.
The court said the interpretation by the Seoul High Court on what constituted bribes by Samsung to Park was too narrow.
Legal experts say a fresh verdict will be unlikely this year, meaning a further extension to legal troubles which have hovered over Lee and South Korea’s largest conglomerate for nearly three years.
As a defendant in a criminal case, Lee, 51, is required to attend the trial.
The case against Lee centred on whether three horses donated by Samsung Group should be considered bribes aimed at winning Park’s favour in the conglomerate’s succession planning. The horses were given to the daughter of Park’s confidante, Choi Seo-won, a professional equestrian.
The Supreme Court said the appeals court erred in not recognising the horses as bribes given by Samsung to win favours, raising the possibility of Lee returning to jail.
Lee, vice chairman of the group’s flagship company Samsung Electronics Co, has already served one year of detention but walked free last year after the appellate court halved a lower court’s five-year jail sentence and suspended it for three years.
The trial comes as current South Korean President Moon Jae-in seeks help from big business leaders to resuscitate a fragile economy. Data on Thursday showed South Korean economic growth slowed more than expected in the third quarter.
Moon thanked Lee for Samsung’s commitment at a ceremony this month unveiling an $11 billion investment in display technologies.
The Supreme Court last week closed a separate bribery case involving Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, allowing him to stay out of jail with a suspended jail sentence. (Reporting by Heekyong Yang and Ju-min Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Lincoln Feast.)