Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun Hye turned up in handcuffs yesterday for her first court hearing over a massive corruption scandal, denying all charges.
She faces 18 charges, including abuse of power, leaking government secrets and colluding with her confidante, Choi Soon Sil, to extort 59.2 billion won (S$73 million) from conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte.
It was Park's first public appearance since her arrest on March 31, and the first time she has appeared together with Choi. Park, 65, who was impeached in March, is South Korea's third former president to face a criminal trial in Courtroom No. 417, after Chun Doo Hwan and his successor Roh Tae Woo.
Most South Koreans were scandalised by allegations first reported last October about the outsize influence that Choi enjoyed over Park, even though the former had no official government position.
Park was said to have allowed Choi to meddle in state affairs, among other things, triggering mass protests demanding her resignation. But public interest in the case has been waning, especially after the election of new president Moon Jae In earlier this month.
Yesterday, a solemn-looking Park was escorted into the courtroom at around 10am (9am Singapore time) in her own navy suit, with a badge displaying her inmate number 503.
She looked straight ahead and did not turn her eyes when Choi, 60, entered and glanced briefly in her direction. The close friends of some 40 years sat facing the judges, with Choi's lawyer between them.
Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said Park's trial "sends a loud and clear message that no one is above the law". "But to see a former president being handcuffed and facing trial is still a difficult, bittersweet moment for many Koreans," he added.
KEY EVENTS IN LEAD-UP TO TRIAL
Oct 24, 2016: Cable TV network JTBC reports that Park Geun Hye's long-time friend, Choi Soon Sil, received and edited drafts of presidential speeches. It says the information was taken from a discarded tablet PC owned by Choi.
Oct 25: Park gives a televised apology over the leak of presidential speeches to Choi.
Oct 27: State prosecution establishes a special task force to investigate allegations surrounding Park and Choi.
Oct 29: Liberal civic groups hold first anti-Park candlelight rally. Tens of thousands of South Koreans attend the weekend rallies until her impeachment by Parliament in December.
Oct 30: Park accepts the resignations of her five secretaries implicated in the corruption and influence-peddling scandal. Choi returns home after weeks of apparently hiding in Europe.
Oct 31: Choi is taken into custody.
Nov 3: Choi is formally arrested.
Nov 4: Park delivers a second national address, offering to face investigations regarding the scandal.
Nov 20: Choi is indicted along with two of Park's former aides. Prosecutors name Park as a criminal suspect, accusing her of colluding with those indicted.
Nov 29: Park delivers her third national address, calling on Parliament to determine her fate as president.
Dec 9: The National Assembly passes a motion to impeach Park in an overwhelming 234-56 vote. She is accused of letting Choi meddle in state affairs and colluding with her to extort millions of dollars from local conglomerates, including Samsung Group. The impeachment resolution is sent to the Constitutional Court for review.
Jan 1, 2017: Park meets the presidential office press corps during which she denies the charges against her.
Feb 17: Samsung's de facto leader Lee Jae Yong is arrested on multiple corruption charges, including bribery and embezzlement.
March 10: The Constitutional Court upholds the parliamentary impeachment of Park with a unanimous decision, immediately removing her from office.
March 21: Park is interrogated by state prosecutors for 21 hours.
March 31: A Seoul court issues a warrant for Park's arrest over corruption charges. The former president is placed in custody at a detention centre just south of Seoul.
April 17: Prosecutors indict Park on multiple charges, including bribery and abuse of power.
May 23: The Seoul court begins the criminal trial of Park. The former president makes her first public appearance since her arrest.
SOURCE: YONHAP NEWS AGENCY, KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
But Choi spoke up for Park, telling the panel of three judges headed by presiding judge Kim Se Yun that she hopes the trial will "free Park from accusations and allow her to be remembered as a president who gave her all to the country".
While denying all charges, Choi also said, with her voice nearly breaking, that she "felt like a sinner" for landing Park in court.
Lead prosecutor Lee Won Seok said it is an "unfortunate piece of history" for the former president to be arrested and tried. But the case also shows that the rule of law applies even to the president, he said.
Park, who said "I have no occupation" in reply to a question about her occupation, denied all charges.
Her lawyer Yoo Young Ha argued that the charges against her were based on "inference and imagination", and that most of the evidence submitted were media reports and not "hard evidence". But the prosecution insisted its probe was based on law, evidence and testimony.
Yesterday's three-hour hearing will resume tomorrow, with up to four sessions a week to be held in the coming weeks. A ruling is expected before mid-October, as Park can be held for only up to six months from April 17, when she was indicted.
If found guilty of bribery - which carries the heaviest punishment of all the charges - she could get anything from 10 years' jail to life imprisonment. But there is also a chance she could get a presidential pardon like Chun and Roh, who were convicted of charges including corruption but later released.
More than 30 people have been arrested and indicted over the case, including Lotte chairman Shin Dong Bin, who also stood trial yesterday for bribery. Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong, who is accused of bribing Choi and Park for business favours, is being tried separately.
Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said Park's trial "sends a loud and clear message that no one is above the law".
"But to see a former president being handcuffed and facing trial is still a difficult, bittersweet moment for many Koreans," he added.
More than 500 people queued for hours for a chance to attend the trial, though only 68 seats were allotted to the public by ballot.
Entrepreneur Hailey Shin, 31, who spent many Saturdays joining candlelight vigils aimed at ousting Park, said: "I don't think many people care about it any more. But I have faith that the system will punish her if she's at fault."
Holed up in cell with dictionary
SEOUL • Former South Korean president Park Geun Hye has been holed up in a single cell in a detention centre for the past two months, reading an English-Korean dictionary and preparing for her defence. She does not watch TV or read the newspapers, said local reports.
A source from the detention centre told JTBC cable TV that guards are "keeping a close eye" on Park, and that she spends most of her time reading the dictionary and meeting her lawyer.
Park, 65, is also said to be eating very little. But she is healthy and has been exercising daily, according to one of her aides.
Despite having no access to a hairdresser for her court trial yesterday, she was still able to recreate her signature bun by herself using hair clips, news channel YTN reported.
She has been held at Seoul Detention Centre just outside the capital city since her arrest on March 31 over 18 charges, including abuse of power and extortion.
She reportedly enjoys preferential treatment, staying in a 10.6 sq m cell, which is twice as big as a normal single cell. She was also allowed to stay in the guard's office for two days while her cell was being renovated, a move that sparked controversy.
The detention centre, however, argued that there is a need to protect the former president from other inmates. Park's friend Choi Soon Sil, a key figure in the scandal, is also held at the same centre.
Last weekend, about 400 Park supporters gathered outside the centre to demand her release.
Chang May Choon