SEOUL, South Korea – Former President Park Geun-hye denied corruption charges Tuesday at the start of a criminal trial that could potentially send South Korea's first female leader to prison for life.
Police had earlier escorted Park, in handcuffs, into court for her first public appearance since she was jailed on March 31 for corruption allegations that 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 uncuffed, 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 her occupation was, 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. 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.
Both Park and her lawyer, Yoo Young-ha, denied all wrongdoing. Asked whether she had anything to add, Park said in a calm, measured voice, "I will say afterward."
Choi reportedly 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 set the next hearing for Thursday.
After the end of Tuesday's hearing, Park, again in handcuffs, didn't speak to reporters as police put her back on the bus to return 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 that emerged last October.
Prosecutors boast of having "overflowing" evidence proving Park's involvement in criminal activities. They say she 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 had 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 that cited an unnamed detention center source.
Park 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.
But she was accused of mishandling a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren. And the scandal involving Choi 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 Park met Lee in July 2015 and that "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 that she was unable to use for herself," Yoo said.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.