A confidante accused of collaborating with South Korea's former president for personal gain was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison for bribery and other crimes in a political scandal that triggered the country's first presidential impeachment and the conviction of an heir to the Samsung empire.
The Seoul Central District Court also sentenced the chairman of the Lotte Group, South Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate, to 2 ½ years in prison for bribery in the same case.
Former President Park Geun-hye was impeached last March and removed from office in disgrace. She is standing trial on more than a dozen criminal charges, and the case against her close friend could hint at the penalty Park could face if convicted.
The court convicted Choi Soon-sil of abuse of power, bribery and other crimes and fined her 18 billion won ($17 million). Choi left the courtroom quietly after the sentencing without showing any emotion.
Among her crimes was pressuring major companies to donate large sums to foundations under her control and receiving bribes from Samsung and Lotte.
The court said Choi's crimes were grave given how they led to the impeachment of a president and disappointed the public.
Choi's lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, said she would appeal. At her final court hearing in December, Lee called the accusations a complete fabrication by politicians, civic groups, media and politically motivated prosecutors who wanted to overthrow Park's government, according to Yonhap News agency.
In the Lotte case, the court said Chairman Shin Dong-bin offered 7 billion won ($6.5 million) in payments to Choi's foundations to curry favors such as winning a state license to open a duty-free shop and to strengthen his control over the group. Lotte has interests in retail, confectionary and many other businesses.
The sentencing sent a shockwave through the South Korean business community, which had been relieved to see an appeals court release Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong from prison last week on a suspended sentence with some of his convictions overturned.
In a text message, Lotte said it was "miserable" that its chief had been unexpectedly jailed, leaving a leadership vacuum. It said it plans to review the verdict before determining its next step. Shin had pleaded not guilty.
In a third case Tuesday, the court sentenced one of Park's former senior aides, Ahn Jong-beom, to six years in prison for abuse of power.
Choi was largely unknown to the South Korean public until a series of revelations in late 2016 disclosed how she allegedly pulled government strings from the shadows, editing presidential speeches and wielding influence over government personnel even though she held no official government position.
She also influenced the college admission process for her daughter, a national equestrian team member who was accepted by a top university in Seoul, enraging the public and helping to spark massive anti-government candlelight rallies. Choi received a three-year prison term last June in a separate case related to influence-peddling in university admissions.
Her case brought the debate about ties between politics and business in South Korea to the fore, as several top business leaders were implicated in the scandal. Her daughter's equestrian training overseas was scrutinized and questions were raised about whether Samsung's purchase of expensive horses for her daughter constituted bribery.
The appeals court ruling that allowed Lee, Samsung's vice chairman, to be freed last week after nearly a year in jail said Lee was unable to reject Park's request to financially support Choi and was coerced into making the payments.
The court still found Lee guilty of giving 3.6 billion won ($3.3 million) in bribes for equestrian training of Choi's daughter and of embezzling the money from Samsung.
Choi's power behind closed doors was compared to Rasputin, the Russian mystic who gained power through his influence over the czar in the early 20th century. Choi's ties with Park date to her father, a religious cult leader and Christian pastor at different times, who was a mentor to Park when she was young.
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