CONFLICTS

Corruption trial begins for ex-South Korean President Park

Former President Park Geun-hye stared straight ahead and denied that she engaged in bribery and leaking government secrets at Tuesday's start of the criminal trial that could send South Korea's first female leader to prison for life if she is convicted.

Police escorted Park, in handcuffs with her eyes downcast, into court for her first public appearance since she was jailed on March 31 based on the corruption allegations that also led to her removal from office.

Cameras flashed as Park emerged from a bus, her inmate number 503 attached to her dark-colored jacket, and walked into the Seoul Central District Court. Her hands were then un-cuffed, and she entered the courtroom and sat before a three-judge panel while a throng of journalists captured images, often in extreme close up, of her somber face.

When Judge Kim Se-yun asked Park, "What is your occupation?" she replied: "I don't have any occupation."

Her longtime confidante and alleged co-conspirator, Choi Soon-sil, sat near Park. The two women had been friends for four decades but did not acknowledge each other.

Choi sobbed as she answered questions about her address and occupation. But Park stared straight ahead as prosecutors read out the charges.

"The accused Park Geun-hye, in collusion with her friend Choi Soon-sil, let Choi, who had no official position, intervene in state affairs ... and they abused power and pressured business companies to offer bribes, thus taking private gains," said senior prosecutor Lee Won-seok.

Park's lawyer, Yoo Young-ha, denied any wrongdoing. Asked whether she had anything to add, Park said in a calm, measured voice: "I will say afterward."

The judge also directly asked Park whether she denies all charges. "Yes," Park replied, "I have the same position as the lawyers."

Choi, according to local media, said in court: "I am a sinner for forcing former President Park, who I have known and watched for 40 years, to appear in a courtroom." She also said, "I hope this trial truly frees former President Park of fault and lets her be remembered as a president who lived a life devoted to her country."

Kim, the judge, said the court decided to combine Park's and Choi's cases and that it will reach a "fair decision in accordance with the constitution and laws." Park's lawyers had demanded the cases to be split, saying that the combined hearings could create bias. The next hearing was set for Thursday.

The trial has captivated many here; local TV channels repeatedly replayed the video of Park walking into the courtroom and sitting before the judges. After the end of Tuesday's hearing, Park, back in handcuffs, didn't speak to reporters before being escorted into the bus that was to drive her back to the detention center near Seoul where she is being held.

"I am here to witness a new chapter of history being unfurled," spectator Lee Jae-bong, 70, told a pool reporter. "I think Park must be punished thoroughly and never be pardoned so that such a bad thing may never happen again."

Park's arrest came weeks after she was removed from office in a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which upheld her December impeachment by lawmakers after massive street protests over the corruption allegations emerged last October.

Prosecutors boast of having "overflowing" evidence proving her involvement in criminal activities. They say Park colluded with Choi to take about $26 million in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from Samsung and other large companies. Park also allegedly allowed her friend to manipulate state affairs from the shadows.

A spokesman from the presidential Blue House said the office has no official statement to make on Park's trial. New liberal President Moon Jae-in took office this month after winning a special election to replace Park.

The scandal has led to the indictments of dozens of people, including former Cabinet ministers, senior presidential aides and billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, who is accused of bribing Park and Choi in exchange for business favors. Lee faces a separate trial.

Park has apologized for putting trust in Choi but denied breaking any laws and accuses her opponents of framing her. Choi also denies wrongdoing.

Park has spent the past weeks locked in a small cell with a television, toilet, sink, table and mattress. She reportedly sees only a few visitors and her lawyers and mostly avoids television and newspapers. She avidly reads an English-Korean dictionary, according a report by a South Korean cable news channel, which cited an unnamed detention center source.

Park, who won the 2012 presidential election over Moon by more than a million votes, enjoyed overwhelming support from conservatives who recalled her dictator father lifting the nation from poverty in the 1960-70s; critics recall his severe human rights abuses.

As president, Park was criticized for what opponents saw as her imperial manner, her refusal to tolerate dissent, and her alleged mishandling of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren. The scandal involving Choi also destroyed Park's carefully-crafted image as a selfless daughter of South Korea and inspired an angry public to push for her ouster and then elect Seoul's first liberal government in a decade.

Opinion surveys show a majority of South Koreans back the prosecution of Park, but she still has staunch supporters.

About 150 people gathered near the court Tuesday and reportedly waved national flags and raised placards that read, "Park is innocent! Release her immediately!" Some screamed and cried when a bus carrying Park passed by.

Park's trial is expected to take several months.

The most damning allegation is that Park and Choi took bribes from Samsung, the country's largest business group. Lee, Samsung's de facto chief, is under suspicion of using millions in corporate funds to sponsor companies, sports organizations and nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.

In exchange, Park ensured government backing for a contentious merger of two Samsung companies in 2015 that was a key step in passing corporate control to Lee from his ailing father, prosecutors say.

Prosecutor Hwang Woong-jae said that Park met Lee in July 2015 and "Park said she hoped the Samsung succession issue would be resolved smoothly under her government and asked Lee Jae-Yong to support the two foundations."

Lee has denied using the payments to win support for the 2015 deal, saying Samsung was just responding to Park's requests to support culture and sports.

Park's lawyer, Yoo, said Park could not have benefited from the foundations because individuals could not freely take away money.

"There was no reason for President Park to force companies to donate money which she was unable to use for herself," Yoo said.

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AP correspondent Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.