SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A former confidante accused of manipulating South Korea's former president for personal gain was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison for bribery and other crimes in the 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.
Park Geun-hye had been impeached last March and removed from the presidency in disgrace. She is standing trial on more than a dozen criminal charges and the case against her former close friend could hint at the penalty Park could face if she is convicted.
The court convicted Choi Soon-sil of abuse of power, bribery and other crimes and imposed an 18 billion won ($17 million) fine on her.
Among her crimes was coercing major companies to donate a huge sums to foundations under her control and receiving bribes from Samsung and Lotte.
The court said Choi's crime was grave given how it triggered an unprecedented impeachment of the president and disappointed the public.
At 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 asked for a break and sat in a wheelchair in court afterward.
The court said that Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin offered 7 billion won ($6.5 million) in bribes to the former president to curry favors such as to win the state license to open a duty-free shop and to strengthen his control over the group. Lotte has interests in retail and many other businesses.
The sentencing sends another shockwave to the local business community that was relieved to see Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong released from prison last week on a suspended sentence with some of his convictions overturned.
In a third case, the court sentenced one of Park's former senior aides, Ahn Jong-beom, to six years in prison for abusing 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 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.
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 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.