December 13, 2016 / 11:48 AM / 7 months ago

Friend of South Korea's Park chooses to appear to "get fair trial"

3 Min Read

South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrives to attend an emergency cabinet meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, December 9, 2016. Yonhap/ via REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) - A friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the centre of a scandal that led to Park's impeachment in parliament will attend the preliminary hearing in her corruption trial next week, even though she is not required to, her lawyer said.

Choi Soon-sil has not appeared in public since arriving at a prosecutors' office on Oct. 31, losing a shoe as she pushed through a scrum of journalists, and protesters demanding she be brought to justice.

South Koreans will be keen to get a look at the woman at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal that could result in the first-ever ousting from office of a democratically elected president of their country.

"She is coming. She wants to come and get a fair trial by the court," Choi's lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have charged Choi, 60, with colluding with Park into pressuring big businesses to pay funds to foundations that backed Park's policy initiatives.

Lee said the prosecutors' accusations against his client were "fiction". He declined to elaborate.

Choi is not required to attend preliminary court hearings and she defied a parliamentary order to appear at a hearing last week, saying she was prone to panic attacks, lawmakers said.

Parliament impeached Park on Friday and she remains in the presidential Blue House, stripped of her powers while she waits for the Constitutional Court to deliberate on the parliamentary vote, and rule whether to uphold it or not.

That could take the up to 180 days.

Park has described Choi as a friend she had turned to at difficult times and apologised for carelessness in her ties with her. Park has denied any legal wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have portrayed Choi as the mastermind in several schemes to gain financial benefit from companies Choi controlled.

The Seoul Central District Court has scheduled a preliminary hearing in Choi's trial for Monday.

It will hold a lottery to allocate about 80 of the 150 seats in the courtroom for members of the public.

Lee said he had visited Choi in detention often, and he had advised her to prepare for the worst. He also questioned whether she could get a fully fair trial.

"I only hope the court will act according to the law and principle, not be affected by candle-lit vigils and taegeuk-gi (Korean flag) protests outside the court," he said, referring to weekly protests calling for Park to go.

"I told her to be prepared for the worst because prosecutors can seek the maximum punishment for her and if there's anything to defend, we need to defend and anything to admit wrongdoing about, then let's admit it."

Editing by Jack Kim and Tony Munroe

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