World

Choi denies fraud charges on first day of trial

SEOUL A friend of South Korean President Park Geun Hye at the centre of a corruption scandal that led to Park's impeachment in Parliament, denied charges of fraud and abuse of power on the first day of her trial yesterday.

The friend, Choi Soon Sil, 60, who had not appeared in public since arriving at a prosecutors' office on Oct 31, was led into court by two correctional officers, her head down, wearing a bulky grey prison suit with a number on her chest.

She is charged with pressuring big businesses to pay money to foundations that backed Park's policy initiatives.

Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice, although she has immunity from prosecution while in office.

Park's powers have been suspended since the Dec 9 vote by Parliament to impeach her, giving the Constitutional Court up to 180 days to uphold or overturn the decision.

In a brief hearing, Choi denied all charges brought against her by prosecutors.

Her lawyer argued that Choi did not collude with Park or other defendants in the case, and she also denied the fraud charges.

"I need to clarify the facts now," Choi was quoted as telling the court by Yonhap News Agency.

Choi spoke softly and was barely audible in her brief comments.

South Koreans have been keen to get a glimpse of the woman at the centre of the political storm and members of the public were allocated seats in the court's gallery by lottery.

"I hope this becomes a turning point for change for the better for our society," said Lim Soon Ja, 68, one of those in attendance.

NO JURY TRIAL

Two former presidential aides who have been indicted along with Choi did not attend the hearing, but their lawyers told the court that they had been following Park's orders.

Choi also said she did not want a jury trial. South Korean courts normally hold criminal trials presided over by a panel of judges, who deliver a verdict and sentence, while defendants in select cases are given the choice of a jury trial.

Her lead lawyer, Lee Kyung Jae, rejected the charge that Choi colluded with Park and one of the former aides to the President, An Chong Bum, to exert pressure on various "chaebol" conglomerates.

"We stressed that there was no collusion between Choi and An Chong Bum and the President, and we look forward to having an intense examination over this point," Lee told reporters after the hearing yesterday.

The next hearing is set for Dec 29.

Park, 64, whose father, Park Chung Hee, ruled the country for 18 years after seizing power in a 1961 coup, has described Choi as a friend she had turned to in difficult times and apologised for carelessness in her ties with her.

Park has denied any legal wrongdoing.

Park's lawyers, arguing against the impeachment vote in an opinion filed at the Constitutional Court, have said the case had no legal basis and was also procedurally flawed.

They added that the impeachment was based largely on unproven suspicion and charges that were now under investigation and trial.

"This goes against the constitutional principle of presumption of innocence," the lawyers said in the opinion. - REUTERS

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