Choi Soon Sil, the confidante of former South Korean president Park Geun Hye, has been sentenced to three years in jail for soliciting favours for her daughter, as part of a huge influence-peddling and corruption case that brought about Park's downfall.
The Seoul Central District Court yesterday found Choi, 61, guilty of exerting influence on the prestigious Ewha Womans University to gain privileges for her daughter's admission and good grades.
This marks the first court ruling in the case, which triggered massive protests and investigations leading to Park's impeachment in March.
More than 30 people have been arrested and indicted in the case, including Park herself and tech giant Samsung scion Lee Jae Yong, who is accused of giving bribes worth 43 billion won (S$52.4 million) to Choi in return for business favours. Park and Lee, who are being held in detention, deny all charges against them.
Choi was indicted last November on numerous charges including fraud, bribery and abuse of power. She will continue to face trial for the other charges.
The court noted yesterday that Choi might have acted out of love for her daughter, but she "committed too much wrongdoing" to justify her actions.
Yonsei University political science professor Rhyu Sang Young said the verdict was "fully predicted", and that it could influence the outcome of Park's trial.
Both women are being tried concurrently. Analysts have noted that the prosecution's tough stance is a sign that no one, not even a former president, is above the law.
Park faces 18 charges including abuse of power, leaking government secrets and colluding with Choi, her friend of 40 years, to extort 59.2 billion won from conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte.
If found guilty of bribery - which carries the heaviest punishment of all the charges - Park could be sentenced to anything from 10 years in jail to life imprisonment.
But there is a chance that she could receive a presidential pardon like disgraced former presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, who were convicted of charges including graft, but later released.
Yesterday, the court also handed down jail sentences to Ewha University's former president Choi Kyung Hee and former head of admissions Namkung Gon - 24 months and 18 months, respectively - for acceding to Choi's demands.
Her daughter, Ms Chung Yoo Ra, used to live in Germany, training as an equestrian athlete. But she was allegedly able to get good grades for classes she did not attend due to her mother's connections.
Ms Chung also allegedly received billions of won in illicit funding from Samsung, under the guise of sports sponsorship. She was arrested in the Danish city of Aalborg in January and extradited to Seoul last month.
Prosecutors failed twice to get an arrest warrant for her on charges including illegal enrolment to Ewha University for lack of evidence. Ms Chung claims she has no knowledge of her mother's wrongdoings.
Friend of former South Korea leader jailed. http://str.sg/4EWQ