Lee was convicted of taking millions of dollars in bribes from businesses and other sources and for also using a private auto-parts company as a channel to embezzle tens of millions more.
Lee was not present at the verdict, with his lawyer citing poor health as well as the court’s decision to allow live television coverage. He had previously denied the charges, and claimed they were politically motivated and brought by the current liberal government of President Moon Jae-in.
South Korea moved from military dictatorship to democracy in the late 1980s, but its political system continues to be undermined by high-level corruption and collusion between the political elite and the powerful business sector.
A succession of presidents have vowed to strengthen the battle against corruption, only to later become embroiled in scandals involving themselves, family members or key aides as they left office or after surrendering power.
While in office, Lee’s government had initiated a corruption investigation into former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009, after which Roh committed suicide. Lee claims the case against him is an act of revenge by Moon, who was Roh’s chief of staff. Moon has angrily rebutted those charges.
Lee was found guilty of a string of offenses, including selling a presidential pardon to Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who had been convicted of tax evasion, as well as siphoning off money from the country’s intelligence agency and taking bribes in return for favors from business figures and others.
Ironically, South Korea scores relatively well on international rankings for bribery at lower levels of society, with police and teachers generally not taking backhanders, in contrast to some other Asian countries, said Kim Geo-sung, a former head of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“There is little corruption at the lower level,” he said. “But it is totally different at the higher levels of power. Politicians make very bad decisions.”
Moon won last year’s election on a promise to root out the nexus of corruption between the political and business elites, and he proposed revising the constitution to, among other things, reduce the power of the president over the judiciary and the president’s power to pass special pardons. But his attempt to pass a constitutional amendment was blocked by conservative lawmakers.
Two other former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both former army generals, were convicted of corruption and other offenses in 1997, although they were both pardoned the same year.
Min Joo Kim reported from Seoul.