SEOUL, South Korea — The de facto leader of Samsung, one of the world’s largest conglomerates, rejected on Friday charges that he bribed South Korea’s former president to keep control of his family’s empire, in his first court appearance in a trial that is also putting a focus on the country’s business culture.
Lee Jae-yong, the third-generation scion of the family that runs the conglomerate and the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, was escorted into the Seoul courtroom by the police with his hands and arms bound. About 150 people, many of them journalists, packed the room to witness what the lead prosecutor had described as “the trial of the century.”
Mr. Lee, who also goes by the name Jay Y. Lee in the West, was indicted in February on charges of offering bribes worth $38 million to the former president, Park Geun-hye, and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. He also faces other charges, including embezzlement and perjury.
Lawyers for Mr. Lee called prosecutors’ key evidence against him weak and “based on presumptions,” promising a spirited defense and setting the stage for a battle that could stretch into next year.
Ms. Park, who was removed from office in the fallout from the corruption scandal, was arrested last month on charges that include abuse of power and bribetaking.
Discontent over the grip that the big conglomerates hold on public and economic life has reached new highs. During the huge weekly rallies protesting the government that continued for months, demonstrators pressed for the arrest of Mr. Lee and other business leaders.
Samsung has acknowledged making the payments but has denied that they were intended to curry political favors from Ms. Park. Prosecutors say the funds were used to win government support for the contentious 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates, which they say helped Mr. Lee cement control of the conglomerate.
In court, prosecutors and lawyers for Mr. Lee gave conflicting versions of what was said during a series of meetings between Mr. Lee and Ms. Park. On one occasion, prosecutors said, Mr. Lee mentioned needing help in dealing with Elliott Management, the American hedge fund that opposed the merger. Mr. Lee’s lawyers disputed that account.
Ms. Park is accused of pressuring the National Pension System, the largest shareholder of one of the Samsung companies involved, to vote in favor of the merger, which she denies.
In court, lawyers for Mr. Lee said that he did not need help from Ms. Park. Samsung offered financial support to benefit her confidante’s daughter, they said, but that was because the company feared a backlash from Ms. Choi, not because it sought a deal in return.
The trial carries the risk of leaving a leadership vacuum at the helm of the company during a crucial moment. Samsung’s flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S8, hits shelves this month, a debut that comes after a costly and humiliating worldwide recall last year of another major model, the Galaxy Note 7.
Mr. Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of the conglomerate, has been incapacitated since May 2014 after a heart attack. The elder Mr. Lee has been convicted twice of bribery and tax evasion, but presidential pardons have saved him from time in prison.
Earlier on Friday, Samsung announced that its estimated operating profit for the three months ending in March was up 48 percent from the same period a year earlier, at $8.7 billion. Estimated revenue was mostly flat at $44 billion. Final earnings results will be released this month.