HONG KONG — Lee Jae-yong, heir to South Korea’s Samsung corporate empire, is due to be freed from prison after an appeals court on Monday reduced the sentence given to him last year for bribery, embezzlement and other charges.
The decision is a blow to South Korean prosecutors who had hoped the longer sentence would send a signal that the authorities would no longer mete out only light punishments for lawbreaking corporate titans. The case is now likely to go to the country’s Supreme Court.
The court reduced Mr. Lee’s sentence to two and a half years from five and suspended it, meaning that he is to be released from custody.
The accusations against Mr. Lee were part of one of the largest influence-peddling scandals in the country’s history, one that has already toppled Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s former president.
Both sides had appealed last August’s sentence; the prosecution had sought 12 years in prison for Mr. Lee. Samsung, whose businesses include smartphones, microchips, insurance and shipbuilding, is the largest of South Korea’s family-run conglomerates.
The chaebol, as the giant companies are known, have dominated the country’s economy for decades. Early South Korean governments gave them tax benefits, cheap electricity and protection from overseas competition. In return, the chaebol were expected to contribute to government projects — or even to funnel money to the coffers of officials and their relatives and associates.
South Korea has often responded with light punishments for business leaders caught in corruption scandals. Many chaebol bosses convicted of crimes have been pardoned or given suspended sentences. Some have even continued to run their empires from behind bars. Mr. Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s group chairman, has twice been convicted of white-collar crimes — and twice spared prison time.
The younger Mr. Lee was indicted last year on charges of bribing Ms. Park, South Korea’s president at the time, to strengthen his control over Samsung’s businesses. Ms. Park had met with him and other chaebol leaders to ask for contributions to foundations controlled by a confidante of the president’s, Choi Soon-sil. Within months, Samsung had donated millions of dollars to the foundations and put millions more toward the training of South Korean equestrians, including Ms. Choi’s daughter.
Mr. Lee’s lawyers acknowledged the payments but argued that Ms. Park had coerced Mr. Lee into making them. The defense also argued that Samsung did not receive any favors or special treatment in return.
Mr. Lee’s year in detention does not appear to have dented Samsung Electronics’ ability to earn gangbusters profit selling smartphones, televisions, refrigerators and memory chips. With demand worldwide for powerful servers and data centers continuing to rise, investors think that Samsung’s semiconductor business, where it earns the bulk of its profit, will continue to throw off money. Mr. Lee is vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and its de facto leader.
Still, given Samsung’s size and long history, the scandal has divided South Korean society. Many young people are weary of the hold that the chaebol exert on public life. The sympathies of older South Koreans, who credit the chaebol for transforming their war-ravaged, agrarian nation into a global export powerhouse, tend to lie with Mr. Lee.
“The chaebol are a big part of the Korean economy,” said Kim Min-jung, a 25 year old in Seoul. “Still, if he did something wrong that he is culpable for, he has to serve his time.”