Lotte chief and ex-president's friend jailed in South Korea scandal

The "female Rasputin" at the heart of the corruption scandal that brought down a South Korean president was sentenced to 20 years in prison today in the latest in a series of sensational criminal trials.

Choi is a long-time confidante of former President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office past year for corruption.

Judge Kim Se-yoon told a packed courtroom that Choi took advantage of "long private ties" with Ms Park to force companies to donate funds to foundations she controlled and used for personal gain.

The court also sentenced Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin to 2 and a half years in jail for bribery, convicting him of providing 7 billion won to Choi's foundations in the form of donations, in return for favors regarding Lotte's duty free business.

Her father, a kind of shaman-fortune teller, was close to Park's father, Park Chung-hee, who served as South Korea's strongman president from 1963 until he was fatally shot by his own spy chief in 1979. Former presidential secretary An Chong-bum got a six-year term and was fined US$92,000.

The court acknowledged that Choi colluded with Park to extort money from the conglomerates including Samsung, Lotte and SK, using presidential connections and abusing power.

Observers say that Choi's harsh sentence will affect Park's case, which is pending at the same court, because the two were indicted on similar charges, including abuse of power and bribe-taking.

Early in the proceedings, Choi pleaded "not guilty" and accused the opposition of framing her. The de-facto head of technology giant Samsung Electronics Co. was jailed previous year in a related trial but he was unexpectedly released last week on appeal, in a ruling that was perceived as a setback to government pledges to curtail the power of the nation's corporate elite.

"This is a heavy sentence bordering on cruelty", he told reporters. "Park is likely to draw a heavier sentence", he said, "possibly up to 25 years in prison".

"We respect the court's decision, but the result is very regretful", Lotte Corp. said by text message.

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. She's accused of meddling in state affairs even though she held no official post in the Park administration, and was charged with 18 counts of corruption. Furthermore, she was a victim of a political plot to overthrow Park's presidency.

The court ruled yesterday that the 3.65 billion won Samsung spent to buy horses and equine equipment for Choi's daughter, and another 3.6 billion won it paid to a company controlled by Choi, amounted to bribes for her. She was the country's first democratically elected president to be forced from office.

Vanessa Coleman

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