South Korea’s former president Park Geun-Hye was jailed for 24 years on Friday for corruption, closing out a dramatic fall from grace for the country’s first woman leader who became a figure of public fury and ridicule.
A trial which lasted more than 10 months ended with Park being found guilty on multiple criminal charges, including bribery and abuse of power.
Park’s successor described the sentencing as a “heartbreaking event” for both the nation and the ex-leader herself.
“The accused abused the power bestowed by the people — the true ruler of this country — to cause chaos in national administration,” said Judge Kim Se-Yoon.
“Despite all these crimes the accused denied all the charges against her, displayed no remorse and showed an incomprehensible attitude by blaming Choi and other … officials,” he said, referring to Park’s secret confidante and long-time friend Choi Soon-Sil.
Park, 66, was convicted of receiving or demanding more than $20 million from conglomerates, sharing secret state documents with Choi, ordering officials to stop offering state subsidies to “blacklisted” artists critical of her policies, and firing officials who resisted her abuses of power.
The wide-ranging corruption scandal exposed shady links between big business and politics in South Korea, prompting massive street protests against Park last year.
But on Friday the ruling was greeted with dismay in streets outside the courtroom by several hundred flag-waving Park supporters.
Many protesters sat on the pavement in tears while others began a protest march.
“The rule of law in this country is dead today,” said Han Geun-Hyung, a 27-year-old Park supporter.
Park herself was not in court for Friday’s judgement which, in a rare move, was broadcast live on television. She had boycotted most sessions of the trial in protest at being held in custody.
She now has seven days in which to file an appeal.
Park becomes the third former South Korean leader to be convicted on criminal charges after leaving office, joining Chun Doo-Whan and Roh Tae-woo, who were both found guilty of treason and corruption in the 1990s.
Park’s presidential predecessor Lee Myung-bak is currently in custody as prosecutors investigate multiple corruption charges involving him and his relatives.
Judge Kim Se-Yoon said he had passed a tough sentence to “prevent such an unfortunate event from happening again”.
Blue House said in a statement after the verdict: “Each person must have different feelings about former President Park Geun-Hye. But a bleak wind blew through the hearts of all of us today.
“It is a heartbreaking event for the nation as well as for the person’s life. A history that is not remembered is bound to be repeated. We will not forget today.”
A Korean ‘Rasputin’?
Park, the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee, lost both her parents to assassins. She took office in 2013 as a conservative icon who cast herself in the role ofthe daughter of the nation — incorruptible and beholden to none.
Less than four years later, she was impeached, stripped of all her powers and ousted from office on the back of months-long mass protests that brought millions onto the streets of Seoul and other cities.
The trigger was a snowballing graft scandal involving Park and Choi and accusations of graft, influence-peddling and taking bribes from corporate bigwigs in exchange for policy favours.
Much of the public anger was focused on Park’s relationship with Choi and accusations that she let her childhood friend — who held no formal position or security clearance — meddle in state affairs, including high-level appointments and editing official speeches.
Choi is the daughter of a shadowy religious figure who had served as a mentor to Park for decades until his death in 1994. She was tried separately and sentenced in February to 20 years in prison.
Condemned in the media for her “Rasputin-like” influence over Park, Choi was convicted of using her presidential ties to squeeze tens of millions of dollars out of major South Korean businesses, including Samsung — the world’s top smartphone maker — and retail giant Lotte.
Former leaders Chun and Roh received presidential pardons after each spent around two years in jail — a privilege that may elude Park for many years, said Jeong Han-wool, an analyst at the Seoul Hankook Research think-tank.
“Park has denied all charges against her and expressed no remorse or atonement — legally as well as politically — for what’s probably the most shocking political scandal in our modern history,” Jeong told AFP.
“Given her attitude and public anger over her scandal that remains raw, it will be difficult to create a political environment in favour of her release anytime soon.”
Park’s left-leaning successor, Moon Jae-in, came to power largely because of the public backlash against her and her conservative party, dimming hopes for a pardon under the current administration, he added.
There is some residual sympathy for Park among her core supporters, who have always seen her as a heroically tragic figure who devoted her life to the service of her country despite childhood tragedy.
The fact that she never married or had children was part of her appeal, given the nepotistic tendencies of many senior officials.
“I’m married to the Republic of Korea. I have no children. South Koreans are my family,” she once declared.
But for the vast majority of Koreans, she has now been permanently disowned and will go down in history not as the country’s first woman president but the first democratically-elected leader to be forced from office.
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