48-year old Lee, who has been in custody since last month, is facing charges that include bribery and embezzlement for allegedly donating $37.2 million to foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of the embattled President, in exchange for government approval of the 2015 Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries merger.
The other four leaders — vice chairman Choi Gee-sung, CEO Kwon Oh-hyun, president Park Sang-jin and executive vice president Hwang Sung-soo — will undergo trial without detention, according to local news.
The nation's largest chaebol, or family-run enterprise, Samsung is now in the cross-hairs. Importantly, the verdict on Lee could influence future investigations on other C-suite leaders accused of crony capitalism, a well-documented issue in Asia's fourth-largest economy, thus making his case the most significant among the five.
Court proceedings were due to start at 2 p.m. local time in Seoul, and a final decision is expected by May. Because Thursday's event is a preliminary hearing, Lee isn't required to attend in person, but his team of 13 top lawyers will be present. The majority of Lee's counsel works for Bae, Kim & Lee, one the country's largest law firms known for their defense of other chaebol heads in criminal cases, according to Reuters.
If convicted, Lee could face up to two decades in prison, but Samsung has repeatedly rejected all charges of "bribery and improper requests," according to an official statement. Lee's lawyer also denied all charges against the executive on Thursday, Yonhap News reported.