Choi Soon Sil, friend of South Korea President, facing 'much unfairness' amid graft scandal

Choi Soon Sil arriving for questioning at a prosecutor's office in Seoul on Nov 1, 2016.
Choi Soon Sil arriving for questioning at a prosecutor's office in Seoul on Nov 1, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - The friend of impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye at the centre of a corruption scandal told a court on Thursday (Jan 5) that she faces "much unfairness" and again denied criminal charges against her.

Choi Soon Sil, 60, wearing a beige prison suit, held her head up and glanced around as she was led by two corrections officers into the court where she is on trial charged with pressuring big businesses to pay money to two foundations that backed the president's policy initiatives.

"I am facing much unfairness," she told the court.

Choi, in custody since late October, had declined to appear for questioning at the special prosecutor's office multiple times, including on Wednesday.

Former presidential aides An Chong Bum and Jeong Ho Seong were present in court on Thursday alongside Choi. They face charges including misuse of power.

Choi, who has known Ms Park for four decades, is accused of colluding with Ms Park to pressure big businesses to contribute to non-profit foundations backing the president's initiatives.

"There was no collusion between my client, the president and An. There is no truth in saying the accused (Choi) was involved in collecting funds for foundations from conglomerates," Mr Lee Kyung Jae, Choi's lead lawyer, told the court.

"The accused has not sought one bit of financial gain for herself since the day the foundations were established."

 

The scandal has also led to the arrest of the chief of the national pension fund, Moon Hyung Pyo, after he acknowledged he pressured it into approving an US$8 billion (S$11.46 billion) merger between two Samsung affiliates in 2015.

As part of their investigation, prosecutors are also trying to ascertain whether Samsung Electronics sought favours from Choi and Ms Park in return for funding some of their initiatives.

No Samsung employees have been accused of any wrongdoing.

Choi's daughter, Chung Yoo Ra, is in custody in Denmark, where she was arrested on Sunday (Jan 1) after being sought by South Korean authorities, who are seeking her extradition.

Chung is a 20-year-old equestrian competitor who trained in Germany and has been accused by South Korea's special prosecutor of criminal interference related to her academic record and other unspecified charges.

"(Choi) is here in spite of her situation and amid a difficult time when she is not aware what may happen to her daughter who has been locked up in Denmark," her lawyer told the court.

Ms Park's powers have been suspended since Dec 9 when she was impeached in parliament. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn is serving as acting president while the Constitutional Court deliberates whether to uphold or overturn the impeachment.

The scandal has drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of Seoul for weekly demonstrations demanding that Ms Park, 64, step down. If the Constitutional Court upholds parliament's decision, she will be the first democratically elected South Korean leader to leave office early.

Protesters are expected to gather again this weekend.