Probe now demands testimony from Choi Soon-sil

Choi Soon-sil, who is facing allegations of fraud, refused to attend the hearing citing a panic disorder as the reason.

    A South Korean parliamentary committee sent a squad of security officers to order the jailed woman at the centre of a scandal that threatens to bring down the president to attend a hearing investigating her alleged manipulation of government affairs.

    Wednesday's drama is the latest step in what appears to be the final days in power for President Park Geun-hye, who faces an impeachment vote on Friday.

    Park, whose approval rating dropped last week to a record low of 4 percent, is accused of having allowed close friend Choi Soon-sil to meddle in state affairs and of giving Choi access to official state documents. 

    Choi, now jailed at a detention centre near Seoul, had earlier cited a panic disorder as the reason that she couldn't testify on Wednesday, according one of the politicians at the hearing.

    READ MORE: Business elite grilled over Park scandal

    "There was a moment sort of made for TV, almost gameshow-like drama earlier on, when the chairman of the committee had stand before him a row of national assembly staff members," Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from Seoul, said.

    "He handed over envelopes with the names of the 10 people that hadn't turn up to the hearing, with the idea being they would then go off, collect these people and bring them back."

    However, it is still highly unlikely the committee will force Choi to attend a hearing and testify, Fawcett said.

    "It looks like Choi Soon-sil's lawyers are going to prevail in this," he said.

    "The national assembly does not have any kind of power of arrest. So the worst that can happen is that somebody is fined."

    In past cases, witnesses who refused to attend hearings have been fined. 

    Legislators in the hearing room first assembled and then sent away about 20 security officers with orders demanding that Choi Soon-sil attend the hearing [Ahn Young-joon/Reuters]

    Prosecutors have arrested and indicted Choi, two ex-presidential aides and a music video director known as a Choi associate, for extortion, leaking confidential documents and other charges in November.

    One of the two ex-aides allegedly pressured big companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi, while the other is accused of passing confidential government documents to Choi. Both men refused to testify on Wednesday.

    Fourteen people caught up in the scandal were at Wednesday's hearing, including two of Choi's former associates and ex-presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon.

    'Hard for you to go to heaven'

    With many key witnesses absent, legislators grilled Kim about a 2014 ferry disaster that has long dogged Park's government over what is widely believed to have been a botched rescue effort.

    OPINION: South Korea's political morass

    The sinking killed more than 300 people, mostly high school pupils on a field trip.

    Opposition politician Kim Kyung-jin screamed as he grilled Kim about an allegation that he told junior presidential secretaries that efforts to recover bodies from the wreckage should be stopped because it would be a burden to the government.

    The legislator cited what he said was a memo left by a late Park secretary. Kim Ki-choon denied making such an instruction, causing Kim Kyung-jin to erupt.

    "It will be hard for you go to heaven after you die. You need a lot of self-reflection," the legislator said.

    If impeached, Park's presidential powers will be suspended and the country's Constitutional Court has up to 180 days to rule on whether to formally unseat her.

    On Tuesday, Park told ruling party leaders that she is willing to accept the outcome if she is impeached and would make "every available effort" to prepare for a court process.

    The comments suggest Park is now bracing herself for a Constitutional Court procedure that could determine her fate.

    SOURCE: News Agencies


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