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By Joyce Lee
SEOUL, April 7 (Reuters) - The third-generation leader of South Korea’s top conglomerate was mostly silent at his first court appearance in what has been called the “trial of the century,” as his lawyers laboured to portray him as an innocent bystander in a graft scandal.
Jay Y. Lee, the 48-year-old boss of Samsung Group, is on trial on charges including bribery and embezzlement in a scandal that led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye.
He could spend more than 20 years in jail if convicted on all charges, including one that he pledged 43 billion won in bribes to foundations backed by Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
“The defendant, Jay Y. Lee, didn’t even know that the contribution was made, because that’s not part of his job,” his lawyer, Song Wu-cheol, told the court.
Lee had merely relayed the comments from one-on-one meetings with Park to his top lieutenant, Choi Gee-sung, he added.
Choi, a former Samsung Group vice chairman considered a mentor to Jay Y. Lee, left the conglomerate on March 1 after it dismantled its corporate strategy office - a nerve center long considered an instrument for the founding Lee family’s management of the companies.
Clad in white shirt and gray suit, Lee, himself the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, was mostly expressionless. He nodded when one of his attorneys reiterated his previous denials of having paid bribes.
Beyond confirming personal details such as his name and occupation, Lee remained silent when the judge asked if he had anything to say in response to the charges he faces.
Lee’s lawyers said the Samsung boss made financial payments in response to requests by then-President Park and sought no favours in return.
The leader of the smartphones-to-biopharmaceuticals business empire is the only founding family member among the country’s most powerful conglomerates, called chaebol, to be indicted in a graft scandal that led to Park becoming South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be removed from office.
Park herself was arrested last week on charges such as colluding with Choi to pressure businesses such as Samsung to contribute to foundations that backed her administration’s policy initiatives.
But the special prosecution says Samsung’s Lee actively curried Park’s favour to cement his control of the family business empire.
“We have secured enough evidence proving that defendant Lee Jae-yong made improper requests to the president,” said Park Young-soo, the special prosecutor, referring to the Samsung leader by his Korean name.
Lee sought Park’s help in maximizing his control of the Samsung companies at the lowest possible cost, he added. (Reporting by Joyce Lee; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)