SEOUL (AFP) — A South Korean appeals court Friday found former Samsung group chairman Lee Kun-Hee guilty of tax evasion but ruled he should not serve a prison term, court officials said.
Despite pleas by prosecutors for a seven-year jail sentence, the judges upheld a lower court ruling which had imposed a three-year prison term suspended for five years.
The appeals court also affirmed a 110-billion-won (84-million-dollar) fine on Lee, who led the country's biggest business group for almost 20 years.
Lee, 66, quit the group in April following a corruption probe. Both he and the prosecution had filed appeals against the lower court ruling in July.
South Korea has a record of leniency towards the bosses of chaebol -- giant family-run conglomerates -- and other prominent white-collar criminals.
Samsung has 250,000 staff in 59 affiliates and accounted for more than 20 percent of the nation's exports last year.
Lee was convicted of evading a capital gains tax bill of 45.6 billion won on the proceeds of covert stock trading using "borrowed name" accounts.
The appeal judges, like the lower court, dismissed a more serious breach of trust charge connected to a wealth transfer to his son.
The issuing of bonds "at a lower price to avoid inheritance and other taxes cannot be seen as causing losses to the company," said Judge Seo Ki-Seog, quoted by Yonhap news agency.
But Seo described Lee's evasion of tax as "very unjust."
Special prosecutors had alleged that Lee caused losses to the group by authorising the issue of cheap convertible bonds, in an attempt to transfer corporate control to his son and heir-apparent Jae-Yong in the mid-1990s.
Lee, in his final statement in early September, had appealed for leniency and apologised to Koreans for "failing to meet their expectations and trust."
The corruption probe was ordered by parliament against the then-government's wishes. It was sparked by former Samsung lawyer-turned-whistleblower Kim Yong-Chul, who publicly raised major graft allegations.
In an attempt to improve its image, Samsung shut down the strategic planning office seen as under the chairman's control and gave its affiliates greater decision-making power.
The group is one of the world's leading manufacturers of semiconductors, mobile phones and LCD displays.
Its products and services pervade every aspect of Korean life. The group's opponents sometimes sarcastically dub the country "The Republic of Samsung."
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