Prosecutors in South Korea have indicted former president Park Geun-hye on high-profile corruption charges that could potentially send her to jail for life. It is the latest in a series of humiliations for Park, who was driven from office by massive and peaceful popular protests.
Park was impeached late last year, officially stripped of power in March and has been in a detention facility near Seoul since being arrested last month on allegations that she colluded with a confidante to extort from businesses, take bribes and commit other wrongdoing.
The indictment by Seoul prosecutors covers multiple charges, including abuse of power, extortion, bribery and leaking state secrets. Park will remain jailed and be escorted from the detention centre to a Seoul court for a trial that is to start in the coming weeks and could take as long as six months.
It is still unclear if the trial will start before special election on May 9 that will determine her successor. Prosecutors also indicted Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of Lotte Group, South Korea’s fifth-largest business conglomerate, on a charge of offering a bribe to Park and her confidante in exchange for a lucrative government licence to open a new duty free shop.
Park, 65, was elected South Korea’s first female president in late 2012.
If convicted, her bribery charge carries the biggest legal punishment, ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment.
While deeply unpopular among many South Koreans, Park still has supporters, and some conservative politicians and media outlets are already demanding that authorities pardon her if she is convicted.
South Korea pardoned two of its convicted former leaders in the late 1990s in a bid for national reconciliation amid a financial crisis, and its court had until recently showed leniency towards punishing corrupt business tycoons because of worries about hurting the economy.
Though surveys show a majority of South Koreans backed Park’s removal from office and arrest, some of her last-remaining ultra-conservative supporters still stage rallies in downtown Seoul every weekend. Such rallies could put pressure on whoever becomes her successor. The new leader will also face increasing North Korean nuclear threats and diverse economic woes.
Park’s scandal triggered huge political turmoil in South Korea, with millions taking to the streets to call for her ousting for months before her supporters launched their own protests.
Dozens of high-level figures, including Park’s friend of 40 years, Choi Soon-sil, top administration officials and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong have already been indicted and await separate criminal trials.
Park has denied any legal wrongdoing, arguing that she only got help from Choi to edit some presidential speeches and on public relations.