Trial Starts for Confidante of S. Korean President

Choi Soon-sil (C) appears for the first day of her trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 19.Choi Soon-sil (C) appears for the first day of her trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 19.

Choi Soon-sil, the jailed confidante of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye denied on the first day of her trial on Monday that she used her ties to Park to extort money from big companies.

The hour-long hearing at the Seoul Central District Court was the first public appearance in weeks of the woman at the heart of a scandal that led to Park’s impeachment after millions took to streets in protests.

Choi Soon-sil’s lawyer, Lee Kyoung-jae, denied that Choi conspired with Park and her presidential aide to pressure companies to donate tens of millions of dollars last year to foundations controlled by Choi, AP reported.

Ten other people swept up in the scandal also face trial.

It is South Korea’s biggest trial since the 2014 court appearance of the crew of a ferry that sank and killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers.

Choi is charged with abuse of power, extortion and attempted fraud. If convicted on all charges, she could receive up to 15 years in prison, according to court spokesman, Shin Jae-hwan.

Before her arrest, Choi said she received some of Park’s speeches in advance, but that she didn’t know if they included confidential information. She denied the other allegations.

Prosecutors allege that Choi helped pressure 16 companies to donate a total of 77.4 billion won ($65.6 million) to create two nonprofit foundations, Mir and K-Sports.

According to the prosecution, Park first brought up the idea of launching the foundations and ordered her senior secretary for policy coordination at the time, Ahn Jong-beom, to ask companies to finance their establishment while letting Choi handle the appointment of foundation officials.

Another ex-presidential aide, Jung Ho-sung, has been charged with passing on confidential information to Choi. Jung did not appear at Monday’s hearing, but his lawyer said Jung has largely acknowledged that he transferred such documents at Park’s instructions.

Park’s representatives have questioned the legality of her impeachment by the country’s Parliament and said no serious crime was committed. The Constitutional Court is reviewing Park’s impeachment. If it rules against her, she’ll be formally unseated and must undergo a direct investigation.

The impeached president has immunity from prosecution for most crimes while in office. She has acknowledged that she got help from Choi for editing speeches and unspecified “public relations” issues, but has denied any other legal wrongdoing.


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