January 5, 2017 / 8:00 AM / 10 months ago

Friend of South Korea's Park facing 'much unfairness' amid graft scandal

SEOUL (Reuters) - The friend of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the center of a corruption scandal engulfing the administration told a court on Thursday that she faces “much unfairness” and again denied criminal charges against her.

Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the centre of the South Korean political scandal and long-time friend of President Park Geun-hye, appears for her first trial at the Seoul Central District Court on January 5, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. REUTERS/Chung Sung-Jun

Choi Soon-sil, 60, wearing a beige prison suit, held her head up and glanced around as she was led by two corrections officers into the court where she is on trial charged with pressuring big businesses to pay money to two foundations that backed the president’s policy initiatives.

“I am facing much unfairness,” she told the court.

Choi, in custody since late October, had declined to appear for questioning at the special prosecutor’s office multiple times, including on Wednesday.

Former presidential aides An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong were present in court on Thursday alongside Choi. They face charges including misuse of power.

Choi, who has known Park for four decades, is accused of colluding with Park to pressure big businesses to contribute to non-profit foundations backing the president’s initiatives.

“There was no collusion between my client, the president and An. There is no truth in saying the accused (Choi) was involved in collecting funds for foundations from conglomerates,” Lee Kyung-jae, Choi’s lead lawyer, told the court.

“The accused has not sought one bit of financial gain for herself since the day the foundations were established.”

The scandal, which has engulfed the highest levels of South Korean government and business and triggered huge public protests, has also led to the arrest of the chief of the national pension fund, Moon Hyung-pyo, after he acknowledged he pressured it into approving an $8 billion merger between two Samsung affiliates in 2015.

As part of their investigation, prosecutors are also trying to ascertain whether Samsung Electronics sought favors from Choi and Park in return for funding some of their initiatives.

No Samsung employees have been accused of any wrongdoing.

Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, is in custody in Denmark, where she was arrested on Sunday after being sought by South Korean authorities, who are seeking her extradition.

Chung is a 20-year-old equestrian competitor who trained in Germany and has been accused of criminal interference related to her academic record and other unspecified charges.

“(Choi) is here in spite of her situation and amid a difficult time when she is not aware what may happen to her daughter who has been locked up in Denmark,” her lawyer told the court.

Park’s powers have been suspended since Dec. 9, when she was impeached in parliament. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is serving as acting president while the Constitutional Court decides what happens to Park.

The Constitutional Court heard opening arguments from the parliamentary impeachment committee as well as Park’s defense counsel on Thursday. Four witnesses were called but only one appeared - a fitness trainer.

The hearing followed the first trial session on Tuesday. As expected, Park was absent for both.

The political scandal has drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of Seoul for weekly demonstrations demanding that Park, 64, step down. If the Constitutional Court upholds parliament’s decision, she will be the first democratically elected South Korean leader to leave office early.

Protesters are expected to gather again this weekend.

Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie

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