The Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday sentenced the niece of former president Park Geun-hye's longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to an unexpected two years and six months in prison.
Jang Si-ho (38) was found guilty of pressuring Samsung to cough up donations for a dubious youth sports foundation her aunt founded.
In an unusual development, the sentence was higher than the one-and-a-half year sentence prosecutors had sought in view of the fact that Jang turned prosecution witness against Park and Choi.
Jang was released from remand prison in June after her detention period expired.
The court found her guilty not only of colluding with her aunt in extorting money for the foundation but also of embezzling W300 million from it and siphoning W240 million from state subsidies (US$1=W1,095).
"The defendant, as Choi's niece, knew about her aunt's relationship with the former president better than anyone else, and used it to secure the donation and embezzle it," the court said.
After she was indicted in November last year, Jang admitted all the charges against her and cooperated willingly with prosecutors. She provided crucial testimony about her aunt’s role in arranging one-on-one meetings between Park and the heads of major conglomerates as well as revealing Choi's hidden assets.
She was therefore widely expected off lightly, but the court said it took into account "the gravity of her offenses and the amount of damage standing at W2 billion."
A court official said, "Such offenses can carry sentences of more than 10 years in jail. I think the court felt that prosecutors were too lenient with her."
Jang was visibly shaken by the ruling. When the judge asked her to comment, Jang said she was too surprised to find words and asked the court to reconsider due to her need to care for her only son.