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Criminal trial of South Korea’s ousted president begins in Seoul

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye (L) sits as her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil (R) arrives for the trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on May 23, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The criminal prosecution of South Korea’s ousted president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges has commenced at a Seoul court, a trial process that could send her behind bars for life if found guilty.

Police officers escorted Park into the courtroom in handcuffs on Tuesday in her first public appearance since she was jailed on March 31 on the same corruption allegations that brought about the president’s downfall earlier this year.

Grim-looking Park, wearing a blue trouser suit and a badge with her inmate number 503, avoided eye contact with her longtime secret confidante and alleged co-conspirator, Choi Soon-sil.

“The accused Park Guen-hye, in collusion with her friend Choi Soon-sil, let Choi, who had no official position, intervene in state affairs ... and they abused power and pressured business companies to offer bribes, thus taking private gains,” said senior prosecutor in the case, Lee Won-seok.

South Korean ousted leader Park Geun-hye arrives in handcuffs at a court in Seoul on May 23, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The 65-year-old Park has denied all wrongdoing, blaming Choi for abusing their friendship. Her lawyer, Yoo Young-ha, denied the charges at preliminary hearings.

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Local media cited Choi as saying during the court session, “I am a sinner for forcing former President Park, who I have known and watched for 40 years, to appear in a courtroom.”

“I hope this trial truly frees former President Park of fault and lets her be remembered as a president who lived a life devoted to her country,” she added.

Judge Kim Se-yun also said the court had rejected a demand by the lawyers to separate the cases of Park and Choi, and that it would reach a “fair decision in accordance with the constitution and laws.”

The next hearing was set for Thursday.

If convicted of the most serious charges, Park faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in jail, and a maximum of life imprisonment.

Park was impeached by the parliament after revelations of her participation in a massive graft scandal centered on Choi that also implicated a number of the country’s top corporate heads.

A supporter of South Korea's ousted president Park Geun-hye cries outside the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on May 23, 2017 after Park's arrival at the court. (Photo by AFP)

The trial, which is expected to last for months, could shed fresh light on the ties between Park and executives of South Korea’s family-run conglomerates dominating Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, who allegedly bribed her.

They include Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong, who is being tried separately, and Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of retail giant Lotte, the country’s fifth-largest conglomerate, who was among the accused on Tuesday.

Park faces 18 criminal charges, including bribery, coercion and abuse of power for offering governmental favors to corporate chiefs who bribed Choi.

The development comes only two weeks after South Koreans elected former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, who had lost to Park in the 2012 presidential election, as her successor.

Park is the third former South Korean president to stand trial for corruption following Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who served jail terms in the 1990s for charges that included bribery and treason.

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