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Former President Park Geun-hye has denied corruption charges at the start of a criminal trial that could potentially send South Korea’s first female leader to prison for life.
Police had earlier escorted Ms Park, in handcuffs, into court for her first public appearance since she was jailed on 31 March for corruption allegations that led to her removal from office.
Cameras flashed as she emerged from a bus, her inmate number 503 attached to her dark-coloured jacket, and walked into the Seoul Central District Court.
Her hands were then uncuffed, and she entered the courtroom and sat before a three-judge panel.
When Judge Kim Se-yun asked Ms Park what her occupation was, she replied: “I don’t have any occupation.”
Her longtime confidante and alleged co-conspirator, Choi Soon-sil, sat nearby. The two women had been friends for four decades but did not acknowledge each other in the court room.
Ms Choi sobbed as she answered questions about her address and occupation. Ms Park stared straight ahead as prosecutors read out the charges.
“The accused Park Geun-hye, in collusion with her friend Choi Soon-sil, let Choi, who had no official position, intervene in state affairs… and they abused power and pressured business companies to offer bribes, thus taking private gains,” said senior prosecutor Lee Won-seok.
Both Ms Park and her lawyer, Yoo Young-ha, denied all wrongdoing. Asked whether she had anything to add, Ms Park said in a calm, measured voice: “I will say afterward.”
Ms Choi reportedly said in court: “I am a sinner for forcing former President Park, who I have known and watched for 40 years, to appear in a courtroom.”
She also said: “I hope this trial truly frees former President Park of fault and lets her be remembered as a President who lived a life devoted to her country.”
Judge Kim said the court decided to combine Ms Park’s and Ms Choi’s cases, and set the next hearing for Thursday.
After the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Ms Park, again in handcuffs, did not speak to reporters as police put her back on the bus to return to the detention centre near Seoul where she is being held.
“I am here to witness a new chapter of history being unfurled,” spectator Lee Jae-bong, 70, said. “I think Park must be punished thoroughly and never be pardoned so that such a bad thing may never happen again.”
Ms Park’s arrest came weeks after she was removed from office in a ruling by the country’s constitutional court, which upheld her December impeachment by politicians after massive street protests over the corruption allegations that emerged last October.
Prosecutors boast of having “overflowing” evidence proving Ms Park’s involvement in criminal activities. They say she colluded with Ms Choi to take about £20m in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from the technology giant and other large companies. Ms Park also allegedly allowed her friend to manipulate state affairs from the shadows.
A spokesman from the presidential Blue House said the office had no official statement to make on Ms Park’s trial. New liberal President, Moon Jae-in, took office this month after winning a special election to replace Ms Park.
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 Ms Park and Ms Choi in exchange for business favours. Mr Lee faces a separate trial.
Ms Park has apologised for putting trust in Ms Choi but denied breaking any laws and accuses her opponents of framing her. Ms Choi also denies wrongdoing.
Ms 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 to a report by a South Korean news channel that cited an unnamed detention centre source.
Ms Park 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.
But she was accused of mishandling a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren. And the scandal involving Ms Choi destroyed Ms Park’s carefully crafted image as a selfless daughter of South Korea and inspired an angry public to push for her ousting and the election of Seoul’s first liberal government in a decade.
Opinion surveys show a majority of South Koreans back the prosecution of Ms Park, but she still has staunch supporters.
About 150 people gathered near the court on Tuesday and reportedly waved national flags and raised placards that read “Park is innocent! Release her immediately!” Some screamed and cried when a bus carrying Park passed by.
Ms Park’s trial is expected to take several months.
The most damning allegation is that Ms Park and Ms Choi took bribes from Samsung, the country’s largest business group. Mr Lee, Samsung’s de facto chief, is under suspicion of using millions in corporate funds to sponsor companies, sports organisations and non-profit foundations controlled by Ms Choi.
In exchange, Ms 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.
Prosecutor Hwang Woong-jae said Ms Park met Mr Lee in July 2015 and that “Park said she hoped the Samsung succession issue would be resolved smoothly under her government and asked Lee Jae-Yong to support the two foundations”.
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