Samsung Electronics' de-facto leader Lee Jae-yong has walked free from jail almost a year after he was detained on corruption charges.
On Monday, the Seoul High Court issued a suspended sentence for the firm's vice chairman who stood trial on charges of bribing former President Park Geun-hye's longtime friend Choi Soon-sil to secure control over his company.
The court handed Lee a two-and-a-half year prison term suspended for four years, overruling a lower court's decision to slap him with a five-year prison sentence.
The appeals court ruled that the free use of Samsung's horses and vehicles by Choi's daughter, as well as the transfer of some three-point-six billion won to Choi's consultancy firm, were acts of bribery.
However, the judges decided to drop charges of diverting funds overseas as well as using one-point-six billion won of Samsung's corporate funds to support Choi's Winter Sports Elite Center.
The court did not accept the prosecution's claim that Samsung offered bribes in return for Lee's takeover of the company from his ill father Lee Kun-hee.
It said there was no implicit request to the president to enable the succession. The court said the scandal was essentially about the former president threatening Samsung leadership and Choi pursuing personal profit taking.
The court added there was no evidence that Lee demanded benefits and privileges from former President Park in return for bribes.
The court also rejected alleged collusive ties between Samsung and political powers in areas such as loan extensions and project expansions.
The latest ruling is expected to affect future proceedings related to Park and Choi, as well as a similar trial involving the chairman of Lotte Group.
The liberal camp including the ruling Democratic Party, the Justice Party and social and civic groups strongly protested the ruling, saying the court gave a free pass to Lee.
The presidential office's Web site has been flooded with requests to dismiss the judge who delivered the verdict.
Conservatives including the main opposition Liberty Korea Party defended the court, saying the ruling was based on evidence.
In light of the reactions, Samsung has been cautious and did not issue any particular statement. But there are expectations of normalized management at Samsung Electronics upon Lee’s return to the firm.
The management of Samsung Group is also expected to no longer be centered on the chairman but a board of directors, which draws attention to shareholder meetings scheduled in March.