First public ap­pear­ance in weeks

Trial starts for con­fi­dante of im­peached Korean pres­i­dent

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The jailed con­fi­dante of im­peached South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye de­nied on the first day of her trial yes­ter­day that she used her ties to Park to ex­tort money from big com­pa­nies. The hour-long hear­ing at the Seoul Cen­tral Dis­trict Court was the first public ap­pear­ance in weeks for the woman at the heart of a scan­dal that led to Park’s im­peach­ment af­ter mil­lions took to streets in protests.

Choi Soon-sil, Park’s friend of 40 years, wore white pri­son clothes and bowed deeply to the three judges be­fore her lawyer, Lee Ky­oung-jae, de­nied that Choi con­spired with Park and her pres­i­den­tial aide to pres­sure com­pa­nies to do­nate tens of mil­lions of dol­lars last year to foun­da­tions con­trolled by Choi. When di­rectly asked by a judge about the ex­tor­tion charges, she de­nied the charges. “I’m sorry for caus­ing trou­ble. I’ll faith­fully en­gage in (my) trial,” Choi said.

The court re­viewed the charges against Choi, who pros­e­cu­tors say ma­nip­u­lated state af­fairs and ex­torted busi­nesses, and the ar­gu­ments by her lawyer. The trial re­sumes again on Dec 29, but it’s not clear how long it will last. Courts nor­mally is­sue a ver­dict within six months of an in­dict­ment, so Choi will likely get a ver­dict by May if pros­e­cu­tors don’t bring new charges.

Ten other peo­ple swept up in the scan­dal also face trial. Choi is also known as Choi Seo-won, which is how she was re­ferred to in court. It is South Korea’s big­gest trial since the 2014 court ap­pear­ance of the crew of a ferry that sank and killed more than 300 peo­ple, mostly teenagers. Choi last ap­peared in public on Oct 31, when, af­ter los­ing a Prada shoe in a crush of jour­nal­ists and pro­test­ers, she told re­porters at the Seoul pros­e­cu­tors’ of­fice that she had “com­mit­ted a sin that de­serves death.”

Abuse of power

Lee, Choi’s lawyer, said yes­ter­day that pros­e­cu­tors vi­o­lated Choi’s rights by il­le­gally in­ves­ti­gat­ing her af­ter she had been in­dicted. Pros­e­cu­tors de­nied that. Choi is charged with abuse of power, ex­tor­tion and at­tempted fraud. If con­victed on all charges, she could re­ceive up to 15 years in pri­son, ac­cord­ing to court spokesman Shin Jae-hwan. Be­fore her ar­rest, Choi said that she re­ceived some of Park’s speeches in ad­vance, but that she didn’t know if they in­cluded con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion. She de­nied the other al­le­ga­tions.

Pros­e­cu­tors al­lege that Choi helped pres­sure 16 com­pa­nies to do­nate a to­tal of 77.4 bil­lion won ($65.6 mil­lion) to cre­ate two non­profit foun­da­tions, Mir and KS­ports. Ac­cord­ing to the pros­e­cu­tion, Park first brought up the idea of launch­ing the foun­da­tions and or­dered her se­nior sec­re­tary for pol­icy co­or­di­na­tion at the time, Ahn Jong-beom, to ask com­pa­nies to fi­nance their estab­lish­ment while let­ting Choi han­dle the ap­point­ment of foun­da­tion of­fi­cials.

An­other ex-pres­i­den­tial aide, Jung Ho-sung, has been charged with pass­ing on con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion to Choi. Jung didn’t ap­pear at Mon­day’s hear­ing, but his lawyer said Jung has largely ac­knowl­edged that he trans­ferred such doc­u­ments at Park’s in­struc­tions.

Park’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives have ques­tioned the le­gal­ity of her im­peach­ment by the coun­try’s par­lia­ment and said no se­ri­ous crime was com­mit­ted. The Con­sti­tu­tional Court is re­view­ing Park’s im­peach­ment. If it rules against her, she’ll be for­mally un­seated and must un­dergo a di­rect in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Choi, 60, is a daugh­ter of the late Choi Tae-min, a pur­ported cult leader who served as Park’s men­tor. Park, 64, is the daugh­ter of Park Chung-hee, a dic­ta­tor who ruled South Korea for 18 years un­til his 1979 as­sas­si­na­tion.

The two women be­came friends in the 1970s, around the time when Park Geun-hye be­gan serv­ing as first lady af­ter her mother was killed dur­ing a failed 1974 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Park Chung-hee. Park Geun-hye once headed a pa­tri­otic group set up by the el­der Choi, while Choi Soon-sil served as head of its col­lege unit. Park has im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion for most crimes while in of­fice. She has ac­knowl­edged that she got help from Choi for edit­ing speeches and un­spec­i­fied “public re­la­tions” is­sues, but has de­nied any other le­gal wrong­do­ing. —AP

SEOUL: Choi Soon-Sil (C), who has been dubbed Korea’s “fe­male Rasputin” for the in­flu­ence she wielded over the now-im­peached pres­i­dent Park Geun-Hye, ar­rives at a court­room for her trial. — AFP

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