Friend of South Korea's Park chooses to appear to "get fair trial"

Choi Soon-Sil (C) is surrounded by the media as she arrives at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office in Seoul on October 31, 2016.
PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - A friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the centre of a scandal that led to Park's impeachment in parliament will attend the preliminary hearing in her corruption trial next week, even though she is not required to, her lawyer said.

Choi Soon-sil has not appeared in public since arriving at a prosecutors' office on Oct. 31, losing a shoe as she pushed through a scrum of journalists, and protesters demanding she be brought to justice.

South Koreans will be keen to get a look at the woman at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal that could result in the first-ever ousting from office of a democratically elected president of their country.

"She is coming. She wants to come and get a fair trial by the court," Choi's lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have charged Choi, 60, with colluding with Park into pressuring big businesses to pay funds to foundations that backed Park's policy initiatives.

Lee said the prosecutors' accusations against his client were "fiction". He declined to elaborate.

Tens of thousands of South Koreans stage protest in Seoul calling for President Park Geun Hye to resign

  • Tens of thousands of unionized workers staged a general strike and students boycotted classes Wednesday, upping pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign.
  • Demanding the president's immediate resignation, civic groups, the workers and students vowed to hold a large-scale rally Saturday.
  • An association of 500 civic groups declared Wednesday as "a day of citizens' resistance," staging rallies in front of City Hall in central Seoul and in major cities from 3 p.m. More universities also joined a boycott of classes to ramp up pressure on Park.
  • "Ignoring people's calls for an immediate resignation, Park shifted responsibility (for her resignation) to the parliament," Choi Jong-jin, acting chief of the nation's second-largest umbrella labour union KCTU, said during the rally in central Seoul.
  • Some 220,000 workers from the public transport, public service, construction and education industries under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions joined the partial strike by taking a day off or leaving work early.
  • Students from 17 universities, including Sookmyung Women's University, Sogang University and Korea University, began to boycott their classes Friday. A few more schools including Seoul National University and Kookmin University joined the boycott Wednesday. Incheon University, Inha University and Pusan National University will join the move from Thursday.
  • Starting at 4 p.m., some 20,000 laborers marched across central Seoul and stopped at the headquarters of major conglomerates including Samsung, SK, Lotte, GS and Hanhwa, which are suspected of contributing money to the K-Sports and Mir foundations set up and run by Park's close confidante Choi Soon-sil.
  • The rally organizers initially planned to march to a fountain only 100 meters away from the presidential office, but the police blocked their plan, citing traffic disruption.
  • The sixth anti-Park rally will be held Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square. As with last Saturday's rally, organizers said some 100,000 participants will completely surround the presidential office from several locations starting from 4 pm.
  • Tens of thousands of South Koreans protested in central Seoul on Saturday (Nov 5) in one the largest demonstrations in the country's capital for years, calling on embattled President Park Geun Hye to resign over a growing influence-peddling scandal.
  • Roughly 43,000 people were at the candle-lit rally early on Saturday (Nov 5) evening, according to police. Organisers said a growing crowd of 100,000 had assembled, making the protest one of the biggest since demonstrations in 2008 against US beef imports.
  • Park Geun Hye has been rocked by a scandal involving an old friend who is alleged to have used her closeness to the president to meddle in state affairs. Ms Park has pledged to cooperate with prosecutors in an investigation.
  • Koreans have been angered by the revelations and say Ms Park, the latest South Korean leader to be embroiled in a scandal involving family or friends, has betrayed public trust and mismanaged her government.
  • Her approval rating has slipped to just 5 per cent according to a Gallup poll released on Friday (Nov 4), the lowest number for a South Korean president since such polling began in 1988.
  • Police said they had deployed 17,600 officers and 220 units including buses and mobile barriers to Saturday's protest. Police in riot gear lined the alleys and streets leading to the presidential Blue House as the main body of the demonstration began the march through central Seoul.
  • Ms Park has sacked many of her immediate advisers over the crisis. A former aide, Jeong Ho Seong, was arrested on Thursday (Nov 3) on suspicion of leaking classified information, a prosecution official told Reuters.
  • No South Korean president has ever failed to finish their five-year term, but Ms Park has faced growing pressure from the public and political opponents to quit.
  • "Even though we're just students, we feel like we can't put up with this unreasonable society anymore so we're participating in this protest with like-minded friends," said Mr Byun Woo Hyuk, an 18-year-old high school student holding a banner calling on the president to resign.

Choi is not required to attend preliminary court hearings and she defied a parliamentary order to appear at a hearing last week, saying she was prone to panic attacks, lawmakers said.

Parliament impeached Park on Friday and she remains in the presidential Blue House, stripped of her powers while she waits for the Constitutional Court to deliberate on the parliamentary vote, and rule whether to uphold it or not.

That could take the up to 180 days.

Park has described Choi as a friend she had turned to at difficult times and apologised for carelessness in her ties with her. Park has denied any legal wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have portrayed Choi as the mastermind in several schemes to gain financial benefit from companies Choi controlled.

The Seoul Central District Court has scheduled a preliminary hearing in Choi's trial for Monday.

It will hold a lottery to allocate about 80 of the 150 seats in the courtroom for members of the public.

Lee said he had visited Choi in detention often, and he had advised her to prepare for the worst.

He also questioned whether she could get a fully fair trial. "I only hope the court will act according to the law and principle, not be affected by candle-lit vigils and taegeuk-gi (Korean flag) protests outside the court," he said, referring to weekly protests calling for Park to go.

"I told her to be prepared for the worst because prosecutors can seek the maximum punishment for her and if there's anything to defend, we need to defend and anything to admit wrongdoing about, then let's admit it."

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