(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with court decision)
SEOUL, Aug. 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's top court on Thursday ordered a lower court to reconsider its suspended jail sentence on Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong for bribery in a move that could further hurt the country's top conglomerate already struggling with economic headwinds.
The decision, which expanded the scope of bribes, could hurt his leadership and deal a blow to Samsung Electronics if Lee is reincarcerated following the appeals court's review. Samsung's key unit has taken a hard hit from South Korea and Japan's trade rift as Japan tightened the supply of key component exports to Korea.
In its final verdict, the Supreme Court asked a lower court to revisit the February 2018 ruling that suspended Lee's jail term and dismissed major charges against him in a corruption scandal that ousted former President Park Geun-hye.
Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, who read out the sentencing, said that the three horses worth 3.4 billion won (US$2.8 million) that Samsung gifted to the president's friend Choi Soon-sil, can be considered bribes, overturning an earlier court ruling that excluded them from bribery.
The top judge also noted that Samsung's 1.6 billion-won donation to a sports foundation run by the Choi family was part of bribes given in return for a government backing of Lee's plan to inherit group control from his father.
In 2017, the 51-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison on numerous charges, including bribery and embezzlement.
The court judged that Lee bribed the president's confidante Choi by providing three horses and equestrian training to Choi's daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, as well as funds for a children's sports foundation run by the Choi family.
However, an appeals court in 2018 cut the jail term to 2 1/2 years suspended for four years.
The court ruled that of the 8.6 billion won worth of bribes that Park and Choi received, only the 3.6 billion-won fund Samsung sent to Choi's Germany-based firm can be considered as bribes.
"The ownership of the horses that Samsung provided was not transferred to Choi," the appeals court said, excluding the horses from the bribery case.
The court also disregarded the prosecution's claim that Samsung offered bribes in return for a government backing of Lee's plan to inherit group control from his father.
"Samsung had no agenda for which it needed to make an explicit or implicit request to the former president," the court said, excluding the donation to the sports foundation from bribery.
Thursday's ruling was broadcast live nationwide via TV and social media, reflecting a nationwide interest in the scandal that rocked the nation.
Tens of millions of people poured into the streets between October and December 2016 to hold candlelight vigils in protest of the massive corruption case.
Park was impeached by parliament in December 2016. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment decision in March 2017, permanently removing her from office a year before the scheduled end of her original five-year term.
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