(LEAD) Sentencing hearing begins on Samsung chief in controversial 2015 merger case

SEOUL, A Seoul court began a sentencing hearing Monday for Samsung Electronics Co. Chairman Lee Jae-yong on charges of stock price rigging and accounting fraud connected to the controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates. The Seoul Central District Court commenced the sentencing hearing on Lee, three years and five months after the Samsung chief was indicted in connection with the merger of Cheil Industries Inc. and Samsung CandT Corp. A stern-looking Lee remained tight-lipped in response to reporters' questions as he appeared at the court to attend the hearing, amid cheering from some supporters. Given the enormous amount of records and complexity of the charges in the case, the court is expected to take hours to make a ruling. Lee was charged with stock price rigging, breach of trust and accounting fraud in the course of the controversial 2015 merger, where three Samsung CandT shares were offered for one Cheil share. Prosecutors suspect that the group manipulated the stock market to inflate th e prices of Cheil and drive down Samsung CandT prices through various unfair practices, including disseminating false market information, mass purchasing the affiliates' stocks and illegally lobbying the National Pension Service, a major Samsung CandT shareholder, to support the merger. Prosecutors suspect that such irregularities had been pursued since 2012 in favor of Lee, who was the biggest shareholder in Cheil with a 23.2 percent share, and with the intent to help him tighten his control of Samsung CandT, the de facto holding company of Samsung Group. The merger was seen as crucial to Lee's succession as the heir of the family-controlled group, as his father, Lee Kun-hee, had suffered a heart attack the previous year. The suspected devaluation of Samsung CandT resulted in losses to other investors, prosecutors concluded. Lee is also accused of involvement in the suspected accounting fraud at Samsung Biologics, a subsidiary of Cheil Industries. Prosecutors demanded a five-year prison sentence for Lee , along with a fine of 500 million won (US$373,550), pinpointing him as the ultimate person responsible for the alleged manipulation scheme. Lee has denied the charges, claiming his personal interests were not considered during the merger of the affiliates. He has also pleaded with the court to acquit him so that he can "concentrate all resources on moving the company forward." Source: Yonhap News Agency