SEOUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of diehard supporters of ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye reacted with outrage on Friday after Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee was found guilty of bribing Park, and they vowed to fight on against what they see as injustice.
The court jailed Lee for five years for bribery, hiding assets abroad, embezzlement and perjury. Lee’s lawyer said his team found the ruling unacceptable and would appeal.
Park was forced from office in disgrace in March over the payments scandal and is in detention and facing her own trial for corruption, which is expected to wind up later this year.
Her supporters’ unwavering belief in her innocence had driven many of them, mostly older women and men, to turn out for Lee, whose conviction, they believe, would almost certainly mean a guilty verdict for Park in her trial.
“Our ultimate goal is President Park Geun-hye’s acquittal and release,” Kim Won-joon, a 62-year-old former construction worker said after the court ruling.
Lee’s conviction bodes ill for Park as prosecutors have argued she and Lee participated in the same act of bribery.
“We worry how today’s guilty verdict for Lee would affect Park’s ruling in October,” Kim said.
Park became the first democratically elected leader to be removed from office over the charges that she colluded with her friend, Choi Soon-sil, to take bribes from conglomerates including Samsung.
A somber Lee, the 49-year-old heir to one of the world’s biggest corporate empires, was led back to detention after his sentence.
Park was also at the Seoul Central District Court on Friday for a hearing in her corruption trial.
“Young Koreans don’t understand that big companies like Samsung saved this country starting in the Park Chung-hee era,” said Hwang Yong-Joon, a 77-year-old retired civil servant who also turned up to support Lee.
He was referring to Park’s father, a military strongman who seized power in a 1961 coup and was credited with dragging the country out of poverty in collusion with the big, family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol.
Park the father was assassinated in 1979. His wife had been killed by an assassin earlier.
Their violent deaths generated a great deal of sympathy for their daughter, who become South Korea’s first women president in 2013.
But Park’s staunch, nostalgic supporters are few compared with the huge crowds that turned out in central Seoul every week to call for her ouster after the bribery scandal surfaced late last year.
“This is a chance to address the cosy relations between politics and business by changing Samsung,” said An Min-ji, a 28-year-old manager of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, who staged a small anti-Samsung protest outside the court.
Police were on hand to make sure the three dozen or so anti-Samsung protesters were kept apart from the crowd of supporters.
Joo Ok-soon, a 65-year-old housewife and leader of another conservative group called “Platoon of Moms”, said Lee’s trial was aimed at setting the stage for Park’s conviction.
Dozens of Park’s supporters lined up outside the court for Lee’s trial many days, often from before dawn and in sweltering summer heat, to secure seats to show their support for him.
Competition for the 30 seats available to the public for the Friday ruling was fierce, with more than 450 people entering a draw to witness what was dubbed “the trial of the century”.
Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jack Kim