A South Korean court Friday began reading its verdict in the trial of disgraced former President Park Geun-hye, who faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on multiple charges of bribery and abuse of power.
Hundreds of flag-waving pro-Park protesters had gathered outside the Seoul courthouse in support of the country’s first ever woman leader, carrying banners and chanting slogans proclaiming her innocence.
Park was impeached and arrested in March 2017 over a wide-ranging corruption scandal that exposed shady links between big business and politics and prompted massive street protests.
She has largely boycotted her own 10-month corruption trial, and earlier this week informed the Seoul Central District Court that she would be absent for the verdict and possible sentencing Friday.
But due to intense public interest in the graft case, events from inside the courthouse are being broadcast live on television — a highly unusual move in South Korea.
The reading of the verdict and sentencing began shortly after 2:00pm local time (0500 GMT) but could take hours to complete. Park, the daughter of assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, faces a total of 18 charges.
The spectacular fall from grace of a former conservative icon who cast herself in the role of an incorruptible “Daughter of the Nation” has captivated South Koreans either side of the political divide.
In front of a heavy police presence, protesters outside the court held a large banner with the slogan “Stop murderous political revenge”.
One 57-year-old Park supporter, who identified himself by the surname Yom, told AFP: “President Park is an innocent victim of a political revenge.”
But for her opponents, Park has become a figure of public fury and ridicule.
She stands accused of colluding with her secret confidante and long-time friend Choi Soon-sil in taking tens of millions of dollars from conglomerates in return for policy favours.
The case reignited public anger over the cosy and often corrupt ties between top officials and the powerful family-run conglomerates — called “chaebol” — that dominate the world’s 11th-largest economy.
Choi was tried separately and sentenced to 20 years in prison in February by the same court.
Prosecutors are demanding a steeper, 30-year-jail sentence and a 118.5 billion won ($110 million) fine for the 66-year-old Park, saying she must take overall responsibility for the scandal due to her position as president.
– Detention centre –
Park is expected to learn her fate at the detention centre near Seoul where she has been in custody for almost a year.
She began her boycott of the trial after being denied bail in October.
During that time she has refused to see any visitors, including her brother and sister, except for her two lawyers.
If convicted, Park would have the right to appeal to the Seoul High Court, although she would remain in custody during the process.
Otherwise her best hope would lie in a presidential pardon.
Yet with her left-leaning successor Moon Jae-in having come to power largely because of the public backlash against her and her conservative party, analysts say an imminent pardon is unlikely.
Park Geun-hye would become the third former South Korean leader to be convicted on criminal charges after leaving office.
Former military generals-turned-presidents Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo were sentenced in the same Seoul courtroom in the 1990s.
Park’s immediate presidential predecessor Lee Myung-bak is also currently in custody as prosecutors investigate multiple corruption charges involving him and his relatives.