The trial of impeached President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges kicked off on Tuesday where she denied the allegations against her. If convicted South Korea’s first female leader may potentially face life in prison.
Police had earlier escorted Park, in handcuffs, into court for her first public appearance since she was jailed on March 31 for corruption allegations that led to her removal from office.
Park has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty at the trial. Her lawyers rejected the 18 charges against her in pre-trial proceedings.
Cameras flashed as Park emerged from a bus, her inmate number 503 attached to her dark-colored 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, while a throng of journalists captured images, often in extreme close-up, of her somber face.
Media reported Park said she did not want a jury trial. Defendants have the right to be tried by a jury although its decision is not binding and can be changed by the presiding judge.
When Judge Kim Se-yun asked Park what her occupation was, she replied, “I don’t have any occupation.”
Her longtime confidante and alleged co-conspirator, Choi Soon-sil, sat near Park. The two women had been friends for four decades, but did not acknowledge each other.
Choi sobbed as she answered questions about her address and occupation. 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.
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.”
The court adjourned around midday, with the next trial day scheduled for Thursday, May 25.
After the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Park, again in handcuffs, didn’t speak to reporters as police put her back on the bus to return to the detention center near Seoul where she is being held.
“I am here to witness a new chapter of history being unfurled,” spectator Lee Jae-bong, 70, told a pool reporter. “I think Park must be punished thoroughly and never be pardoned so that such a bad thing may never happen again.”
Park’s arrest came weeks after she was removed from office in a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which upheld her December impeachment by lawmakers after massive street protests over the corruption allegations that emerged last October.
Prosecutors boast of having “overflowing” evidence proving Park’s involvement in criminal activities. They say she colluded with Choi to take about $26 million in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from Samsung and other large companies. 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 Park’s trial. New liberal President Moon Jae-in took office this month after winning a special election to replace 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 Park and Choi in exchange for business favors. Lee faces a separate trial.
Lee has rejected charges he bribed Park in return for favors for Samsung.