SEOUL – South Korea’s top court upheld a 17-year prison sentence on former President Lee Myung-bak for a range of corruption crimes in a final ruling Thursday that will send him back to prison soon.
Lee has been convicted of taking bribes worth millions of dollars from big companies including Samsung and embezzling corporate funds of a company that he owned. He was also found guilty of taking bribes from one of his spy chiefs in return for his appointment and other favors.
The crimes occurred before and during his 2008-13 presidency. Lee has denied the charges.
The Supreme Court also confirmed a lower court ruling that ordered Lee to pay 13 billion won ($10.9 million) in fines and forfeit another 5.78 billion won ($4.6 million) for his crimes, court officials said. Thursday’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed.
Lee was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018. He was bailed out of jail several months later but was taken back into custody in February this year, after an appellate court handed down a 17-year term and canceled his bail. He was released again six days later after he appealed that ruling on his bail cancellation.
A Supreme Court statement said it cannot endorse a suspension of the court’s decision to cancel Lee’s bail. The Seoul prosecutor’s office didn’t immediately announce when it would send Lee back to prison. Local media reports said Lee would return to prison within three to four days.
Kang Hoon, a lawyer for Lee, told reporters later Thursday that he’ll take all available steps to prove Lee’s innocence. Kang quoted Lee as saying that “the truth will be uncovered some day.”
Lee, 78, was South Korea’s first president with a business background and once symbolized the country’s economic rise. He began his business career with an entry-level job at Hyundai Group’s construction arm in the mid-1960s, before he rose to CEO of 10 companies under Hyundai Group and led the group’s rapid rise at a time when South Korea’s economy grew explosively after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Lee won the 2007 presidential election amid public hopes to revitalize the country’s economy, but his five-year term was tainted by a global financial meltdown, huge street protests over the resumption of U.S. beef imports and military tensions with North Korea. Before being elected president, Lee served as Seoul mayor.
Lee’s corruption case erupted after his successor and fellow conservative Park Geun-hye was ousted and sent to jail over a separate 2016-17 scandal. The back-to-back scandals have deeply hurt conservatives in South Korea and deepened a national divide.