Ousted South Korean president Park Geun Hye's confidante denies alleged bribery at Samsung leader's appeals trial

Choi Soon Sil, the central figure in ousted South Korean President Park Geun Hye's corruption scandal, is carried out in a wheelchair from the Seoul Central District Court on Dec 14, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Choi Soon Sil, confidante of ousted South Korean president Park Geun Hye, said that Samsung Group's purchase of expensive horses was not a bribe, but part of the group's roadmap for equestrian sponsorship, during the appeals trial of Samsung's de facto leader Lee Jae Yong.

Taking the witness stand at the 15th hearing of the appeals trial of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee at Seoul High Court, Choi reiterated her denial of bribery allegations surrounding herself, Lee and former president Park.

Lee was sentenced to five years in prison in August for bribing Park and Choi in return for political favours.

Asked whether she had requested that Samsung Group buy expensive horses only for her daughter and dressage rider Chung Yoo Ra, Choi said that it was not exclusively for Chung and was part of Samsung Group's roadmap.

"Samsung has the ownership of the horses," Choi said. "I have never talked about any deal with Samsung Group."

Choi, the woman at the centre of the corruption scandal that led to Park's impeachment in March, refused to testify during Lee's trial at the lower court, saying she could not "trust" the prosecution.

This time, she actively defended herself in the courtroom, but avoided answering key questions.

Lee is accused of promising to give or giving donations worth 43.3 billion won (US$40 million) to nonprofit foundations run by Park's close friend Choi, and sponsoring Choi's daughter with the expectation that Park would back the 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates that would solidify his control over the group.

The prosecution views it as bribery and suspects that the deal was made during one-on-one meetings between Lee and Park on three occasions. It suspects that Park exerted influence over the nation's equestrian body to sponsor Choi's daughter.

Choi claimed no knowledge of the one-on-one meetings between Park and Samsung's Lee.

Lee, who has been detained since February, was found guilty of all five charges - bribery, embezzlement, concealment of criminal proceeds, illegal transfer of assets overseas and perjury.

Lee denied the charges, saying he had little involvement in the day-to-day running of Samsung and the donations were made without his knowledge. Lee has admitted that the firm gave a horse and money to help the equestrian career of Choi's daughter Chung Yoo Ra, but denied seeking favours.

Choi is awaiting a verdict scheduled for Jan 26 on a total of 18 charges including bribery and extortion. The prosecution demanded that she be given a prison term of 25 years.

Park is also standing trial on charges of bribery and abuse of power in connection with the corruption scandal that sent her aides, high-profile government officials and business tycoons to trial and jail.

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