Confidante of South Korea's ex-president faces 25 years behind bars

By Jennie Oh  |  Updated Dec. 14, 2017 at 5:48 AM
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SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- South Korean prosecutors have demanded a 25-year prison sentence for Choi Soon-sil on Thursday, as a Seoul court began wrapping up her 14-month legal battle.

Choi is a central figure in the influence-peddling scandal that led to the ousting of former President Park Geun Hye, who faces 18 criminal charges including the abuse of power, fraud, obstruction of duty and bribery.

The Seoul Central District Court on Thursday opened a final hearing for Choi along with ex-presidential secretary An Chong Bum and Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong Bin over their involvement in the influence-peddling scandal.

Along with the 25-year prison term, prosecutors requested the court to charge Choi a penalty of $108 million and a surcharge of $7 million.

Choi reportedly had to be carted out of the waiting room as she was heard screaming, unable to contain her shock at the possible predicament. A brief break was granted for Choi to compose herself.

The 61-year-old stands accused of colluding with the ex-president, and former presidential secretary An, to raise more than $71 million for her Mir and K-Sport foundations, by extorting some of the nation's largest conglomerates including Samsung Group, and retail giant Lotte Group.

Choi also allegedly received $7.1 million from Samsung Electronics' de facto leader Lee Jae Yong, which partially funded her daughter's equestrian activities, JoongAng Ilbo reported.

Under the country's special criminal law, cases involving kickbacks of more than roughly $92,000 are subject to at least 10 years of imprisonment, or even a life sentence, Yonhap reported.

The South Korean Supreme Court's sentencing guideline recommends imposing 9 to 12 years of time behind bars when bribes exceed $460,000.

However, in cases where additional penalties are delivered for specific crimes under the special criminal law, the guideline recommends a prison term of at least 11 years, up to a lifelong sentence.

Observers say Choi has a high chance of receiving a heavy sentence and it is unlikely that the court will reduce her penalties, given the sheer number of charges against her and her denial of wrongdoing.

Choi's lawyer Lee Kyung Jae on Thursday denied all charges against her, saying that the claims have been "adapted and distorted by people who wished to bring down the Park Geun Hye government."

He denied that Choi had extorted funds for her Mir and K-Sport foundations, saying she had no part in collecting donations.

On Samsung's bribery case, the lawyer argued that the conglomerate isn't alone in offering kickbacks to the government, saying that all businesses should be charged guilty.

Samsung Electronics Lee Jae Yong was sentenced to five years for bribery in August. Choi's accomplice Cha Eun Taek and niece Jang Si Ho were also deemed guilty of involvement in the influence-peddling scandal.

Choi Soon Sil was put behind bars in November last year as the scandal spiraled. Earlier this year, she was sentenced to three years of imprisonment for using her ties to the ex-President to solicit academic favors for her daughter.

A verdict on Thursday's trial is expected to be announced in mid-January.

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