Friend of Park Geun-hye denies charges as trial begins

Choi Soon-sil, accused of abuse of power and extortion, appears in Seoul district court as her fraud trial begins.

Choi Soon-sil attends her first court hearing in Seoul
Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of South Korean President Park, attends her first court hearing in Seoul [Reuters]

The jailed confidante of disgraced South Korean President Park Geun-hye has denied charges on the first day of her trial that she used her ties to the president to extort money from big companies.

The hour-long hearing at the Seoul Central District Court on Monday was the first public appearance in weeks for the woman at the heart of a scandal that led to Park’s impeachment after millions took to streets in protests.

Choi Soon-sil, Park’s friend of 40 years, wore white prison clothes and bowed deeply to the three judges as the trial began.

Her lawyer, Lee Kyoung-jae, denied that she conspired with Park and her presidential aide to pressure companies to donate tens of millions of dollars to foundations controlled by her last year.

When directly asked by a judge about the extortion charges, Choi denied the allegations.

“I’m sorry for causing trouble. I’ll faithfully engage in [my] trial,” she said.

READ MORE: South Korea parliament probes Park’s ‘missing hours’

The court reviewed the charges against Choi, who prosecutors say manipulated state affairs and extorted businesses, and the arguments by her lawyer.

Ten others swept up in the scandal also face trial. Choi is also known as Choi Seo-won, which is how she was referred to in court.

Al Jazeera’s Craig Leeson, reporting from Seoul, said Choi did not want a jury trial. South Korean courts normally hold criminal trials presided over by a panel of judges, who deliver a verdict and sentence, while defendants in select cases are given the choice of a jury trial.

“Choi’s lawyers said that she did not conspire with the president, and they asked that she not be tried in front of a public jury believing that the public sentiment is against her,” our correspondent said. 

“They [Choi’s lawyers] asked that evidence be verified within the court and not on the street.”

READ MORE: South Korea – Park supporters joust with protesters

Choi last appeared in public on October 31, when, after losing a Prada shoe in a crush of media and protesters, she told reporters at the Seoul prosecutors’ office that she had “committed a sin that deserves death”.

Before her arrest, Choi said she received some of Park’s speeches in advance but that she did not know if they included confidential information.

Park’s representatives have questioned the legality of her impeachment by the country’s parliament and said no serious crime was committed.

The Constitutional Court is reviewing Park’s impeachment. If it rules against her, she will be formally unseated and must undergo a direct investigation.

Park has immunity from prosecution for most crimes while in office.

She has acknowledged that she got help from Choi for editing speeches and unspecified “public relations” issues, but has denied any other legal wrongdoing.

The next court hearing is set for December 29.

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Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies