SEOUL — South Korean prosecutors requested on Tuesday a 30-year prison sentence for disgraced former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached last year in a sensational corruption scandal.
The requested term, if granted, probably would be a life sentence for Park, who is 66. Prosecutors also asked the Seoul Central District Court to fine her $110 million for her alleged crimes.
The court is expected to deliver its verdict and impose any sentence in late March or early April.
“Park is the person who is ultimately accountable for this influence-peddling scandal,” the prosecutor told Judge Kim Se-kyoon.
“This scandal left an indelible stain on our country’s history. However, it also gave rise to a meaningful movement among its citizens to reestablish democracy and rule of law,” he said, according to local reports from the courtroom.
Park is facing 18 charges including bribery, coercion and abuse of power for her alleged role in a plan to extort millions of dollars from South Korea’s biggest businesses for her personal gain. Her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, was found guilty this month of carrying out the extortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Park has vigorously maintained her innocence throughout the case and has been refusing to attend her trial, saying she is the victim of “political revenge.” She did not appear in court when the prosecutors argued for the 30-year sentence.
Prosecutors held up her disdain for the legal process as a sign of her lack of remorse.
About 3,000 of the former president’s supporters demonstrated outside the court Tuesday as the prosecution was making its case. Draped in flags, the mostly older demonstrators called the prosecutors “crazy” and vowed to fight the sentencing.
“A 30-year sentence is even heavier than what murderers get. It’s so unfair,” Ahn Hyo-min, 24, told the News1 agency.
Since legal reforms were enacted in 2009, the average sentence for murder in South Korea is 12 years in prison, according to a Kyungpook University study.
The Liberty Korea Party, which emerged from the ruins of the conservative party that Park led, called the request “more cruel than capital punishment” because it would force the former president to live out the rest of her life in shame.
Legal scholars said the prosecutors’ request reflected the unprecedented nature of the case.
“Thirty years is the maximum prison sentence that can be handed down in South Korea, short of life imprisonment,” said Rhee Joo-won, a law professor at Korea University. “The requested sentence is exceptional for any criminal, let alone for a former politician.”
A guilty verdict and a long jail term would complete the fall from grace of a former political princess in South Korea.
Her father, Park Chung-hee, took power in a military coup and was president during the 1960s and 1970s. He oversaw South Korea’s astonishing economic transformation from an agrarian backwater emerging from the ashes of war to an industrial powerhouse famous for building ships and electronics. But this came at the expense of civil liberties, as Park ruled with an iron fist.
In 1974, Park Chung-hee’s wife was killed by a North Korean sympathizer. The bullet was meant for the president. Park Geun-hye, his daughter, then moved into the role of first lady until, five years later, her father was assassinated by his own spy chief.
During that tumultuous period, Park Geun-hye began seeking spiritual guidance from a shaman named Choi Tae-min, who said he could convey messages from her mother in the afterlife.
Park, who was notoriously reclusive and had become estranged from her siblings, became friends with Choi’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, around this time and began increasingly to rely on her.
The extent of Park’s reliance on Choi became clear in 2016, three years after Park was elected president.
Journalists uncovered evidence that Choi, who held no official position and no security clearance, was advising the president on issues including her wardrobe, major policy speeches and more. It also emerged that Choi raised about $70 million from South Korea’s biggest businesses, including Samsung and Lotte, ostensibly for two foundations promoting sports.
In fact, the foundations were little more than private slush funds, and the donations were bribes for favorable business treatment.
After months of huge protests at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, Park was impeached in March last year. She was arrested soon afterward and has been in detention ever since.
The same judge who will now determine Park’s fate sentenced Choi to 20 years in prison and fined her almost $17 million for her role in the scheme. Prosecutors had sought a 25-year prison sentence and a $109 million fine for Choi.
Judge Kim said at the time that Park’s presidential Blue House was the “main agent” in setting up the bogus foundations to accept the donations.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.