SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Handcuffed, her inmate number 503 attached to her clothing, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye begins her corruption trial Tuesday in the same courtroom where a brutal dictator was sentenced to death two decades ago.
Once the most powerful person in the country, Park will now face judgment over charges of extortion, bribery and abuse of power that could send her to jail for life.
The hearing in room No. 417 of the Seoul Central District Court will be Park’s first public appearance since she was jailed in the early hours of March 31. Her arrest came weeks after she was removed from office in a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which upheld the December impeachment by lawmakers after massive street protests over the corruption allegations began last October.
Prosecutors boast of having “overflowing” evidence proving her involvement in criminal activities. They accuse Park, South Korea’s first female president, of colluding with a friend of 40 years to take about $26 million from the country’s largest companies through bribery. She also allegedly allowed her friend to manipulate state affairs from the shadows.
The scandal has led to the indictments of dozens of people, including former Cabinet ministers, senior presidential aides and billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, who is accused of bribing Park and her friend, Choi Soon-sil, in exchange for business favors.
Park has apologized for putting trust in Choi but denied breaking any laws and accuses her opponents of framing her. Choi also denies wrongdoing.
She will join the former president in court on Tuesday, and judge Kim Se-yoon is expected to decide whether to try them together or to split Park’s and Choi’s cases. Park’s lawyers have alleged the combined hearings could create bias.
Park has spent the past weeks locked in a small cell with a television, toilet, sink, table and mattress. She reportedly sees only a few visitors and her lawyers and mostly avoids television and newspapers. She avidly reads an English-Korean dictionary, according a report by a South Korean cable news channel, which cited an unnamed detention center source.
It is a stunning fall for a woman who won the 2012 presidential election by more than a million votes. She enjoyed overwhelming support from conservatives who recalled her dictator father lifting the nation from poverty in the 1960-70s; critics recall his severe human rights abuses.
As president, Park was criticized for what opponents saw as her imperial manner, her refusal to tolerate dissent, and her alleged mishandling of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren. The scandal involving Choi also destroyed Park’s carefully-crafted image as a selfless daughter of South Korea and inspired an angry public to push for her ouster and then elect Seoul’s first liberal government in a decade.
Opinion surveys show a majority of South Koreans back the prosecution of Park, but she still has staunch supporters, hundreds of whom gathered over the weekend near the detention center near Seoul where she is being confined. They waved the national flag and screamed, “She has done nothing wrong!” and “Free her now!”
Experts see her trial as a painful but necessary step in the maturation of what’s still a young democracy.
Every president elected after the country’s transition toward democracy in the late 1980s faced scandals near the end of their terms. But Park was the first sitting president to be ousted through democratic procedures, reflecting a public that has become significantly less tolerant of corruption or abuse of governmental power.
Many believe South Korea gives too much unchecked power to the president. Following Park’s ouster, some politicians argued for constitutional changes to curb presidential powers. Among the ideas were to let the prime minister handle domestic affairs or strengthen the autonomy of regional governments. These discussions will likely be revisited during the presidency of liberal Moon Jae-in, who took office this month after winning the special election to replace Park.
Park’s trial is expected to take several months.
The most damning allegation is that Park and Choi took $26 million in bribes from Samsung, the country’s largest business group. Lee, Samsung’s de facto chief, is under suspicion of using $39 million in corporate funds to sponsor companies, sports organizations and nonprofits controlled by Choi.
In exchange, Park ensured government backing for a contentious merger of two Samsung companies in 2015 that was a key step in passing corporate control to Lee from his ailing father, prosecutors say.
Under South Korean law, a bribery conviction involving more than 100 million won ($89,000) can lead to a prison term of more than 10 years or even life imprisonment. However, legal experts say prosecutors must clearly prove that Park and Choi were connected economically as Samsung’s alleged bribes went to Choi, not directly to Park. Lee has denied using the payments to win support for the 2015 deal, saying Samsung was just responding to Park’s requests to support culture and sports.
Park’s trial will take place in a courtroom where former military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power in a coup shortly after the 1979 assassination of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, received a death sentence in 1996. It was later reduced to life in prison before he was freed by a presidential pardon.
Moon said during his campaign he won’t pardon Park or Samsung’s Lee.
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