The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court's two-year prison sentence for Rep. Han Myeong-sook of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy for bribery, effectively concluding a five-year-long legal battle between the nation's first female prime minister and the prosecution.
The 71-year-old Han, who served as the nation's second-in-command from 2006 to 2007, was indicted in 2010 for allegedly receiving some 900 million won (S$1 million) in illicit political funds from a 53-year-old man who ran a local construction company.
She was cleared of the charges in a preliminary trial in 2011 after the witness reversed his testimony about giving the kickback, which was the key evidence behind Han's indictment. But the Seoul High Court in 2013 overturned the decision and sentenced her to two years imprisonment in addition to paying 880 million won in restitution, saying despite the apparent flip-flop testimony, circumstantial evidence points to Han being guilty. Han appealed the verdict.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said it was reasonable to believe that Han had received the money, given that her sister had used part of the funds -- a 100 million won check -- to lease an apartment.
The ruling will strip Han of her seat in the National Assembly, as well as bar her from running for a parliamentary seat for the next 10 years. She will also become the first South Korean former premier to be put behind bars.
"I will comply with the ruling, but regrettably cannot accept it. The law, which should be fair, is being swayed by those in power," Han said in a news conference at the National Assembly.
Han and other members of the opposition have accused President Park Geun-hye's administration of gunning down her political rivals, particularly those who had been in the inner circles of former President Roh Moo-hyun.
"I hope the political retribution that started with President Roh will end with Han Myeong-sook," she said.
NPAD leader Moon Jae-in expressed his regret about the ruling and added the party is certain that Han is innocent.
"There is no one who gave the money, or received the money, yet the court concluded (she was) guilty. This is very far from the justice and common sense widely accepted by the people," he said at the news conference.
He said most of the ruling party politicians accused of receiving bribes from deceased businessman Sung Woan-jong were cleared of charges, saying that both the prosecution and the court is being pressured by those in power.
Moon also vowed that his party would go all-out to reform the legal system to make it free from outside influence. Current law stipulates that justices of the Supreme Court are pointed by the president with parliamentary consent.
Han's downfall is likely to be a major setback to the already-wavering NPAD. Including her, 10 of its incumbent lawmakers are being probed, indicted, or under trial.
Earlier this month, former NPAD floor leader Park Ki-choon was arrested for allegedly receiving illegal political funds. Kim Han-gil, former chairman of the party, is also set to be summoned by the prosecution for his supposed connection to a corruption case.
Reiterating that the administration was using the legal system to bring down Park's political rivals, Rep. Lee Jong-kul, the floor leader for the NPAD, said that the recent corruption probe is "a suppression of the opposition" by the government, vowing that his party would fight on.
The ruling Saenuri Party, however, said that the prosecution and the court are acting solely based on law and principle, and that the opposition's claims of an oppression are merely excuses for its wrongdoing.
Han, formerly a prominent women's rights activist, was named the country's premier by former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2006. She also served as the leader of the Democratic United Party, a forerunner of the NPAD, in 2012.