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Monday May 21st, 2018 8:53AM

Court to rule on ex-South Korean leader's jailed confidante

By The Associated Press
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean court is set to deliver a verdict Tuesday in the case of a woman at the center of an influence-peddling scandal that triggered the country's first presidential impeachment and the conviction of an heir to the Samsung empire.

Prosecutors are seeking a 25-year prison term for Choi Soon-sil, who was tried on abuse of power and eight other charges.

The ruling will likely give hints about the penalty former President Park Geun-hye could face if she is convicted. Park, who was impeached and jailed in March last year, is on trial for more than a dozen charges.

In Choi's final court hearing in December, her lawyer Lee Kyung-jae called the accusations a complete fabrication by politicians, civic groups, media and politically motivated prosecutors who wanted to overthrow Park's government, Yonhap News agency reported. It said she was so shocked by prosecutors' requested sentence that she requested a break and sat in a wheelchair in court afterward.

The Seoul Central District Court is also due to rule Tuesday on former senior presidential aide Ahn Jong-beom, who faces six charges including abuse of power, and Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin, who was charged with bribery.

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 positions.

She also influenced the college admission process of her daughter, a national equestrian team member who was admitted to a top university in Seoul, which enraged Korean public and helped spark massive anti-government candlelight rallies. Choi received a three-year prison term in a separate court case related to her influence-peddling in university admissions.

Her case brought the debate about the 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.

Choi's role in non-profit foundations and a winter sports center that solicited a massive amount of funds from top South Korean businesses including Samsung were also investigated.

Those investigations led to the conviction and jailing of Lee Jae-yong, Samsung vice chairman, for nearly a year until an appeals court overturned the most serious charges and released him last week.

The appeals court 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 the closed doors was compared to Rasputin, the Russian mystic who gained power through his influence over the tsar in early 20th century. Choi's tie with Park started as her father, a religious cult leader and Christian pastor at different times, was a mentor to Park when she was young.

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