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South Korean court upholds ex-President Park's 20-year prison sentence

South Korea's Supreme Court upheld the 20-year prison term of former President Park Geun-hye on Thursday. She was convicted on charges including bribery and abuse of power in 2017. Photo by EPA-EFE/Yonhap
South Korea's Supreme Court upheld the 20-year prison term of former President Park Geun-hye on Thursday. She was convicted on charges including bribery and abuse of power in 2017. Photo by EPA-EFE/Yonhap

SEOUL, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- South Korea's Supreme Court upheld the 20-year prison sentence of former President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, ending the legal battles over corruption and abuse of power charges that saw the 68-year-old impeached and then convicted in 2017.

The court's decision was a response to an appeal by prosecutors over a July ruling that reduced her sentence from its original 30 years. A fine of $16.3 million was also upheld.

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Thursday's ruling means that Park faces a combined 22 years in prison. She is serving a separate two-year conviction from 2018 for illegally meddling in the nomination process of her political party.

Park became South Korea's first female president when she was elected in 2013, and is its first democratically elected leader to be removed from office. She is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

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Her presidency was marred by scandals that included receiving millions of dollars in bribes from businesses in a scheme with her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil.

Millions took to South Korea's streets calling for Park's ouster in a protest movement known as the Candlelight Revolution, which began in November 2016 and carried on through her impeachment and removal from office in March 2017.

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Several other figures were also implicated in the scandals including Choi, her confidante, and the de facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong.

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In 2017, Lee was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for offering bribes of roughly $7 million to Park and Choi. He was freed in 2018 after a court reduced his term and suspended his sentence. However, his case is currently being retried and a verdict is expected next week.

Park, who pleaded not guilty, was not present for the sentencing Thursday and has not attended any of her trials since October 2017.

"The unfortunate incident of a former president in prison should serve as a historical lesson that this should never happen again," presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said in a briefing after the ruling.

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The conclusion of Park's trial opens the door to the possibility of a presidential pardon. The idea has been the topic of heated public debate since the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, Rep. Lee Nak-yon, said at the beginning of the year that he would ask President Moon Jae-in to pardon Park and former President Lee Myung-bak, who is also in prison, as a means of promoting "national unity."

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Lee Myung-bak, Park's predecessor as president from 2008 to 2013, is serving a 17-year sentence for various corruption charges.

President Moon's office declined to weigh in on the question of pardons on Thursday.

"It is not appropriate to comment on pardons so soon after the Supreme Court decision was issued," Kang said.

In survey results released Monday by pollster Realmeter, 56.1% of respondents said that a pardon "would not contribute" to national unity, while 38.8% felt that it would.

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