Choi Soon-Sil (C), the jailed confidante of disgraced South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, appears on the first day of her trial at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on January 5, 2017. Choi, the woman at the centre of a corruption scandal that triggered the biggest political crisis for a generation in South Korea, appeared in court on January 5 on fraud charges. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Chung Sung-Jun
The impeachment trial of South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye got under way Thursday, with her lawyers arguing there is no evidence to back the corruption allegations that threaten to force her from office.
Parliament voted to impeach Park last month over an influence-peddling scandal that has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets every week demanding her removal.
Park is accused of colluding with a longtime friend, Choi Soon-Il, to strong-arm donations worth tens of millions of dollars from top firms which were then funnelled to dubious foundations.
The president is also accused of using her influence to ensure the merger of two Samsung units in 2015 to help facilitate a father-to-son power succession of Samsung’s founding family, allegedly in return for bribes given to Choi.
The National Assembly, which must have its vote upheld by the Constitutional Court, accused Park of a “serious breach of the constitution” during the first full hearing in the impeachment case.
“The court is requested to fire the president so that impaired constitutional order can be restored”, said Kwon Seong-Dong, a lawmaker representing the parliament.
“The president has betrayed the trust and mandate from the people”, he added.
The Constitutional Court’s initial hearing on Tuesday was curtailed after Park failed to attend. It decided to proceed on Thursday regardless of whether she was present.
Park’s lawyers said there was no proof the president had issued any directive, oral or written, to tell her aides to ensure the National Pension Fund — the largest shareholder of one of the two Samsung units — voted for the merger.
– ‘No solid evidence’ –
They urged the court to overturn the impeachment vote, saying the motion had been based on “likelihood at best” and insisted she be reinstated as president immediately.
“There is no solid evidence to back the impeachment”, Park’s lawyer Lee Jung-Hwan told the court.
Park is also accused of ordering aides to leak state documents to Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in state affairs including the appointment of top officials.
Park also allegedly failed to carry out her official duties as the head of state during her response to the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly schoolchildren.
The court has asked Park’s lawyers to clarify the mystery surrounding her seven-hour absence at the time of the disastrous sinking.
Unconfirmed media reports have suggested a wide range of theories about Park’s whereabouts, including a romantic liaison, participation in a shamanistic ritual, cosmetic surgery or a 90-minute haircut.
Park has repeatedly denied the corruption allegations in sometimes tearful televised addresses, while apologising for lapses.
At a separate criminal court trial Thursday, Choi also repeated her denial of all charges levelled against her.
“I think I was victimised” by groundless allegations, said Choi.
Her lawyers have denied allegations Choi was involved in peddling influence or extortion.
In a rare meeting with journalists, the president said Sunday that she had only sought to listen through Choi to ordinary citizens’ opinions on her polices and speeches.
She also insisted the donations to the foundations were made voluntarily by companies to help develop the country’s culture and sports.
The president also argued she reacted properly at the time of the ferry tragedy, ordering all possible efforts to rescue the victims.
But massive demonstrations have been taking place in Seoul and other cities every Saturday for the past 10 weeks, with protesters calling for Park’s immediate departure from office.