South Korean court jails former President Park for 24 years over corruption scandal

SEOUL, April 6 (Reuters) - A South Korean court jailed former President Park Geun-hye for 24 years on Friday over a scandal that exposed webs of corruption between political leaders and the country's conglomerates.

Park became South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office last year when the Constitutional Court ordered her out over a scandal that landed the heads of two conglomerates in jail.

The court also fined Park, the daughter of a former military dictator, 18 billion won ($16.9 million) after finding her guilty of charges including bribery, abuse of power and coercion.

"The defendant abused her presidential power entrusted by the people, and as a result, brought massive chaos to the order of state affairs and led to the impeachment of the president, which was unprecedented," judge Kim Se-yoon said as he handed down the sentence.

The court ruled that Park colluded with her old friend, Choi Soon-sil, to receive 23.1 billion won from major conglomerates including Samsung and Lotte to help Choi's family and bankroll non-profit foundations owned by her.

Prosecutors sought a 30-year sentence and a 118.5 billion won ($112 million) fine for Park.

Park, 66, who has been in jail since March 31 last year, has denied wrongdoing and was not present in court.

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment
FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (C) salutes during the 67th Armed Forces Day at Gyeryongdae, South Korea's main compound in Gyeryong City, South Korea, South Korea, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hee-Chul/Pool/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A pro-government activist (C) holds a portrait of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul on February 27, 2017 as the court holds its final hearing in the impeachment trial of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 10: Travelers watch the news reporting on South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment ruling while they wait for their trains at the Seoul Station on March 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. The verdict on South Korean President Park's impeachment will be delivered by the Constitutional Court at 11 a.m on March 10, 2017. The hearing will be televised live from the main courtroom; Park is not expected to attend the hearing. (Photo by Jean Chung/Getty Images)
An altar to buddhist monk Jung Won is displayed at a hospital in Seoul on January 10, 2017. A South Korean Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in protest against the impeached President Park Geun-Hye has died, officials said. The monk, 64, set himself alight on January 7 in central Seoul, where hundreds of thousands held a massive rally for the 11th week to demand Park's immediate removal. / AFP / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 10: A traveler watches the news reporting on South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment ruling while they wait for their trains at the Seoul Station on March 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. The verdict on South Korean President Park's impeachment will be delivered by the Constitutional Court at 11 a.m on March 10, 2017. The hearing will be televised live from the main courtroom; Park is not expected to attend the hearing. (Photo by Jean Chung/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 09: Supporters of South Korean President, Park Geun-hye take part in a rally in front of the Korean Constitutional Court before the impeachment verdict which is to be announced on March 10 in Seoul, South Korea on March 09, 2017. (Photo by Kim Jong Hyun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A demonstrator demanding South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment holds a sign featuring a photograph of Park during a protest outside the Constitutional Court of Korea ahead of the court's ruling in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, March 10, 2017. Any successor to Park will inherit a struggling economy that faces heightened risks from China and the U.S., its biggest trading partners, as well as record household debt. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 09: Supporters of South Korean President, Park Geun-hye take part in a rally in front of the Korean Constitutional Court before the impeachment verdict which is to be announced on March 10 in Seoul, South Korea on March 09, 2017. (Photo by Kim Jong Hyun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
South Korean acting Constitutional Court's Chief Judge Lee Jung-mi, center, attends the final hearing on whether to confirm the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, at the Court in Seoul February 27, 2017. Special prosecutors investigating the swirling corruption scandal that has embroiled South Korea's impeached President Park Geun-Hye and a host of major companies lost a bid to extend their inquiry on February 27. / AFP / POOL / Ahn Young-joon (Photo credit should read AHN YOUNG-JOON/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Park Geun-hye looks at the exhibition 'DMZ-Gruenes Band' during a visit to the East Side Gallery in Berlin March 27, 2014. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pro-government demonstrators holding US and South Korean attend a rally in central Seoul on February 11, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in rival rallies in Seoul, protesting for and against the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye, after months of political turmoil in South Korea. / AFP / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Jang Si-ho, a niece of Choi Soon-sil, arrives at the central district court in Seoul on January 17, 2017. Choi is accused of using her ties with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to coerce top local firms to 'donate' nearly 70 million US dollars to dubious non-profit foundations Choi then used as her personal ATMs. / AFP / POOL / Kim Min-Hee (Photo credit should read KIM MIN-HEE/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a Samsung apartment building in Seoul on January 19, 2017. A South Korean court has refused to authorise the arrest of the heir to the Samsung business empire, in a setback to prosecutors probing a corruption scandal engulfing President Park Geun-Hye. / AFP / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Choi Soon-Sil (L), 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 / POOL / Chung Sung-Jun (Photo credit should read CHUNG SUNG-JUN/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 5: Jeong Ho-seong, former secretary for private presidential affairs, appears for his first trial at the Seoul Central District Court on January 5, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Jeong Ho-seong is key witness in President Park Geun-hye's impeachment trial, who is at the center of possible corruption scandal that has been leading the president's impeachment appeared at the court hearing. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
South Korean Constitutional Court's Chief Judge Park Han-Chul attends a hearing on whether to confirm the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye at the Court in Seoul on January 5, 2017. / AFP / POOL / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters carry portraits of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye during a protest demanding the impeached President resign immediately in Seoul on January 7, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of protestors returned to the streets of Seoul on January 7, demanding impeached President Park Geun-Hye's immediate removal and the salvaging of a sunken ferry which left more than 300 dead. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters walk past a candle-shaped monument during a candle-lit rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-Hye's immediate departure from her office, in downtown Seoul on December 31, 2016. South Korea sees in the new year with a massive protest calling for an immediate arrest of impeached President Park Geun-Hye. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Park Geun-hye addresses a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) at the Chancellery in Berlin March 26, 2014. Red circle is from a light on a TV camera. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 24: Choi Soon-Sil (C), longtime confidante of the South Korean President Park Geun-hye, arrives for questioning into her suspected role in political scandal at the office of the independent counsel on December 24, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. A South Korean Independent Counsel Team summoned Choi who allegedly exploited her connections with Park to extort money and favors from the country's largest companies and manipulate government affairs from the shadows. (Photo by Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images)
Portraits of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye (C) and her aides are set in a mock prison during a rally against the scandal-hit president in central Seoul on December 17, 2016. Tens of thousands of protesters turned out in Seoul for the eighth straight week on December 17, pushing for the swift and permanent removal of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 14: Opposition People's Party lawmaker Lee Yong-Joo shows impeached President Park Geun-Hye's three pictures combo taken on May during a parliamentary hearing over the Choi Soon-sil gate probe at the National Assembly on December 14, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea started the third round parliament hearing on the corruption scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-Hye. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
South Korean protesters carry an effigy of President Park Geun-Hye during a rally against the scandal-hit president in central Seoul on December 17, 2016. Tens of thousands of protesters turned out in Seoul for the eighth straight week on December 17, pushing for the swift and permanent removal of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
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The judge said Park had shown "no sign of repentance" but had instead tried to shift the blame to Choi and her secretaries.

"We cannot help but sternly hold her accountable," Kim said.

Park apologized at her trial for seeking help from Choi, who had no policy or political experience, but that was as close as Park came to admitting any guilt.

The sentence will be a bitter blow for Park, who returned to the presidential palace in 2012 as the country's first woman leader, more than three decades after she left it following the assassination of her father.

Her ouster from office last year led to a presidential election won by the liberal Moon Jae-in, whose conciliatory stand on North Korea has underpinned a significant warming of ties between the rival neighbors.

Moon's office said Park's fate was "heartbreaking" not only for herself but for the country, and added that history that was not remembered history would be repeated.

"We will not forget today," the office said.

Up to 1,000 Park supporters gathered outside the court, holding national flags and signs calling for an end to "political revenge" against her.

 

SUPPORTERS, OPPONENTS

Prosecutors accused Park of colluding with Choi to receive 7 billion won from Lotte Group for favors, while pressuring big businesses to bankroll non-profit foundations run by Choi's family and confidants.

Park was also charged with taking bribes totalling 29.8 billion won from Samsung, the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and semiconductors.

Choi was convicted and jailed for 20 years after a separate trial in February.

The chairman of the Lotte Group, the country’s fifth-largest conglomerate, Shin Dong-bin, was jailed for two years and six months.

Samsung Group heir Jay Y. Lee was jailed for a similar term on charges of bribery and embezzlement but in a surprise decision in February, an appeals court freed him after a year in detention.

Park's supporters and opponents reflect divisions in a society still haunted by Cold War antagonism.

Most supporters are older conservatives who remember her father's authoritarian 18-year rule, beginning in 1961, when their country began its remarkable surge towards becoming an economic power.

Younger, liberal voters, who staged months of protests against Park before her ouster, will be hoping the verdict will mark a major step towards ending the self-serving collusion between political leaders and the chaebol conglomerates.

Park is the latest former leader of South Korea to run afoul of the law.

Her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, is also being investigated for corruption.

Chun Doo-hwan, a former military dictator, was found guilty of mutiny, treason and corruption in 1996. He was sentenced to death but released after two years under a presidential pardon.

Chun's successor, Roh Tae-woo, was also convicted of treason, mutiny and corruption in 1996 and jailed for more than 22 years but served just over two years before being released. (Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Heekyong Yang Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim and Christine Kim Editing by Robert Birsel)

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