SEOUL -- South Korean special prosecutors said Friday that Samsung's vice chairman and de facto leader Lee Jae-yong deserves life imprisonment for the alleged embezzlement of almost 30 billion won ($26.4 million) of corporate funds to bribe a longtime confidant of former President Park Geun-hye.
Lee stole the money from Samsung Electronics and five affiliates to bribe Choi Soon-sil because he believed she could help to ensure government backing for his management control, the prosecution told the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul.
"Samsung Electronics' funds were used to support a horse riding team which actually did not exist. The company also supported a sports education center and foundations run by Choi," Park Ju-seong, a prosecutor, told the court. "Embezzling more than 5 billion won is given life imprisonment or heavy punishments equivalent to that."
The hearing was Lee's first court appearance since he was arrested in February. Lee, who denies any wrongdoing, wore a grey suit with no tie and appeared to have lost weight and looked pale.
His arrest shocked South Korea, where family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, dominate the country's economy. Samsung, the largest conglomerate, has total assets equivalent to a fifth of gross domestic product.
In addition to the embezzlement, the prosecution said that Lee violated South Korea's Foreign Exchange Trade Law by moving 7.8 billion won to an overseas country without telling the authorities. Illegal transactions valued at more than 5 billion won are subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum of 10 years.
Attorneys for Lee admitted that Samsung Electronics had sent money to Choi, but claimed that the Samsung leader had been threatened by Park, who had rebuked him for not helping Choi. Payments made following threats are not regarded as bribery.
Park, who is under arrest following her dismissal from the presidency after impeachment, has denied any wrongdoing. Choi, who is also under arrest, has also denied any wrongdoing.
Samsung sent 7.8 billion won to Core Sports, a paper company in Germany controlled by Choi, according to the prosecution. She used the money to buy horses for her daughter Jeong Yu-ra and to acquire a BMW sedan. She also spent some of the money on Jeong's baby son, the prosecution said.
The hearing lasted for nine hours, including a break for lunch. Lee said nothing, but listened to the prosecution and his lawyers. He bowed to the judges when he entered the court, and smiled slightly before leaving. The next hearing will be held on April 13.