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(2nd LD) Former PM Han acquitted of bribery charge

All Headlines 17:23 April 09, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with prosecutors' appeal and reactions in last 7 paras)
By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul district court on Friday acquitted former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook of the charge of receiving money from a local businessman while in office, a ruling that is likely to pave the way for the leading opposition figure to run for Seoul mayor in June's local elections.

Han, 66, was indicted last December on charges of receiving US$50,000 in December 2006 from Kwak Young-wook, a former CEO of Korea Express, in return for helping him get the top post at a state-run company while serving as prime minister. Prosecutors last week demanded a five-year prison term and that Han forfeit $50,000.

The Seoul Central District Court said Kwak's allegation that he paid $50,000 to Han is unreliable.

"Kwak's testimony against Han can hardly be trusted from the perspective of its rationality, objectivity and consistency, as well as of his personality," Judge Kim Hyung-doo said in his ruling.

Kwak, who had confessed to giving Han the money, has repeatedly changed his testimony since the trial began in early March.

"Kwak appears to have cooperated with prosecutors and made false statements to avoid a personal crisis. Prosecutors' late-night questioning may also have affected his testimony," said Kim, noting he was under arrest on embezzlement charges at the time of the prosecution's investigation into the case.

While acquitting Han of the bribery charge, the court sentenced Kwak to three years in jail for embezzling $500,000 from Korea Express.

Han has strongly denied the allegations and refused to speak to prosecutors during the final court hearing, accusing them of trying to taint her political reputation in the run-up to the elections slated for June 2.

Having served as prime minister under the Roh Moo-hyun administration from April 2006 to March 2007, Han is currently a senior adviser to the main opposition Democratic Party (DP).

"I hope there will be no other people who become scapegoats in politically charged investigations," Han told reporters after the sentence hearing.

The acquittal is likely to deal a blow to prosecutors, with Han's supporters accusing them of indicting political heavyweights without solid evidence ahead of the local elections, seen by many as a bellwether for the conservative Lee Myung-bak government.

Prosecutors at the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office said they would appeal the case.

In a related development, prosecutors raided two construction companies in Gyeonggi Province on Thursday on suspicion that their chief executives embezzled company money to hand over illicit political funds to Han.

Political parties showed mixed responses to Friday's ruling.

"This ruling showed the difficult nature of the bribery case, which is hard to prove without physical evidence. Despite the ruling, Han's immorality has been disclosed," said Cho Hae-jin, spokesman of the ruling Grand National Party.

On the other hand, DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun, who took the witness stand in court, hailed the court decision.

Han "cleared herself of false charges today, but the prosecution has resumed accusations" against her, Chung said, noting the prosecution's new investigation into separate bribery allegations involving Han, which it started just a day before the court ruling.


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