Friend of former South Korea leader jailed for 20 years; Lotte chief arrested

Choi Soon Sil arriving at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul for the verdict on her case, on Feb 13, 2018. PHOTO: AFP/YONHAP

SEOUL (Reuters, AFP) - A Seoul court sentenced a close friend of former President Park Geun Hye to 20 years in prison on Tuesday (Feb 13) for a string of corruption charges linked to a massive influence-peddling scandal that forced Park from office early last year.

The court also ordered Choi Soon Sil to pay a fine of 18 billion won (US$16.6 million).

Choi was found guilty of abuse of power, bribery and meddling in state affairs by the Seoul Central District Court.

"The accused is sentenced to 20 years in prison," judge Kim Se Yoon said.

Choi took advantage of "long private ties" with Park to force companies to donate funds to foundations she controlled, the judge said.

She accepted a total of 14 billion won (S$13 million) from telecommunications giant Samsung and retail conglomerate Lotte, he said, and "meddled in state affairs widely".

"The guilt of the accused is heavy," he added, and she had shown no repentance.

Prosecutors had demanded a 25-year jail term for Choi. The 62-year-old was arrested and indicted on 18 counts of corruption in November 2016.

The Seoul Central District Court also ruled on Tuesday that Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong Bin, charged with bribery, was guilty and sentenced him to two years and six months in jail.

He was accused of donating seven billion won to Choi's foundations in return for favour regarding Lotte's duty free business.

Shin who was in court was immediately taken into custody following the court ruling, and ordered to forfeit the same amount he offered to Choi.

Shin and Lotte, which has interests ranging from retail to chemicals, had denied the charge.

The jail term for Shin follows a December ruling in which the court found him guilty of breach of trust and embezzlement in a different case but suspended sentencing, leaving him free to run the group, South Korea's fifth largest conglomerate.

An Chong Bum, Park's senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, was given a six-year jail term and ordered to pay 100 million won in fine for accepting bribes and involvement in Choi's influence-peddling.

The influence-peddling scandal broke sometime around August 2016 and sparked weeks of candlelight protests in the streets of Seoul. Park was dismissed from the presidency last March after being impeached and is in jail.

She is on trial on charges of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. She has denied any wrongdoing. A verdict is expected late next month (March), according to Yonhap news agency.

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