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(LEAD) Ex-president Park's friend gets 20-year prison term in influence-peddling scandal

All Headlines 17:38 February 13, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with court ruling from 8th para; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, Feb. 13 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul court sentenced an old friend of former President Park Geun-hye to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for a string of corruption charges linked to a massive influence-peddling scandal that forced Park from office early last year.

The Seoul Central District Court handed down the verdict on Choi Soon-sil, Park's longtime friend and confidante, on the conviction of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. It ordered her to pay a fine of 18 billion won (US$16.6 million).

Choi, 62, was arrested and indicted on 18 counts of corruption in November 2016. She was accused of exploiting her ties with the former president and forcing 50 business conglomerates to pay a combined 77.4 billion won to two nonprofit foundations she controlled.

She allegedly meddled in various state affairs and gained access to confidential government files even though she held no official position or authority in the Park government.

Special Counsel Park Young-soo and state prosecutors demanded 25 years in prison for Choi, with a fine of 118.2 billion won and forfeiture of 7.7 billion won. Choi pleaded not guilty.

The court also sentenced Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin to 2 and a half years in jail for bribery, convicting him of providing 7 billion won to Choi's foundations in the form of donations, in return for favors regarding Lotte's duty free business. Shin was immediately taken into custody following the court ruling and ordered to forfeit the same amount he offered to Choi.

An Chong-bum, Park's senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, was given a six-year prison term and ordered to pay a 100 million-won fine for accepting bribes and for involvement in Choi's influence-peddling.

The court acknowledged that Choi colluded with Park to extort money from the conglomerates including Samsung, Lotte and SK, using presidential connections and abusing power.

"It appears the conglomerates had little to benefit from Choi's foundations," it said. "Judging from that, the court must rule that their contributions were an outcome of coercion by the former president at Choi's request."

The court found Choi guilty of accepting 7.3 billion won from Samsung in sponsorship of her daughter's equestrian training, in line with a lower court ruling in August on Samsung's de facto head Lee Jae-yong.

But Lee's charges were mitigated in the appeals trial last week and he was released on a suspended jail term after a yearlong detention.

Choi was also convicted for pressuring SK Chairman Chey Tae-won to pay 8.9 billion won to one of her foundations. Chey refused her demand.

The court made it clear in the ruling that Park played a pivotal role in the collusion and in the course of setting up Choi's foundations.

"Park's Cheong Wa Dae is the main agent in the establishment of the foundations," the court said, denying the defendant's argument that the donations were made voluntarily by the firms as part of corporate philanthropy.

Choi is a daughter of Choi Tae-min, a pseudo-pastor who is believed to have engaged in cult activities and became Park's mentor after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer in 1974. Park and Choi are known to have been friends since then.

Rumor has it that the elder Choi amassed his wealth using his ties with Park, who accompanied her father, then-President Park Chung-hee, as acting first lady and replaced him after his death.

The massive scandal involving Choi and Park triggered weeks of street protests calling for Park to step down. Park's presidency ended a year short following the Constitutional Court's March 10 ruling on her ousting. The disgraced ex-leader has been charged as a co-conspirator in Choi's case, pending a court verdict late next month.

Choi Soon-sil (L), Park Geun-hye's longtime friend and confidante; An Chong-bum (C), Park's former senior aide; and Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin are shown in this composite photo on Feb. 13, 2018 as they enter the Seoul Central District Court to attend their sentencing over the corruption that led to Park's ousting. (Yonhap)


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