Ex-president’s friend jailed for 20 years in S. Korea scandal

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SEOUL Choi Soon Sil - a friend of former South Korean leader Park Geun Hye - who was at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal, has been sentenced to 20 years in jail, a Seoul court said yesterday.

Choi, a confidante of Park, was convicted of receiving bribes from South Korean conglomerates including Samsung and the Lotte Group.

Park was dismissed from the presidency in March last year after being impeached, and she is standing trial separately on charges of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. She denies any wrongdoing.

The court also sentenced the chairman of Lotte, the country's fifth-largest conglomerate, to two years and six months in prison yesterday and ordered his immediate arrest. The chairman, Shin Dong Bin, was in court and taken into custody.

His arrest creates a leadership vacuum at Lotte, a retail-to-chemicals giant with 110.8 trillion won (S$134 billion) worth of assets, as it navigates mounting losses at its China operations.

The verdict comes at a time when Lotte, a sponsor of the Winter Olympics currently on in South Korea, had stepped up marketing in a bid to promote its brand and boost sales.

Prosecutors had sought a four-year jail term for Shin, accusing Lotte of giving a foundation backed by Park and Choi 7 billion won for favours such as a duty-free store licence.

Shin and Lotte had denied the charge.

The jail term for Shin follows a December ruling in which the court found him guilty of breach of trust and embezzlement in a different case but suspended sentencing, leaving him free to run the group.

Presiding Judge Kim Se Yun said Park "abandoned constitutionally-given responsibility and gave position and power to others" and that Choi used her position "to monopolise state business and seek personal gain".

Prosecutors had demanded a 25-year jail term for Choi on charges including coercion, bribery, influence-peddling and abuse of authority.

Meanwhile, a verdict in Park's trial is expected before her detention period ends in April. - REUTERS