SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s top court upheld on Thursday a 20-year prison sentence for former President Park Geun-hye on graft charges that led to her downfall, bringing an end to the legal process and for the first time raising the possibility of a pardon.
Park became South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be thrown out of office when, in 2017, the Constitutional Court upheld a parliament vote to impeach her over a scandal that also landed the heads of two conglomerates in jail.
The daughter of a military dictator, Park took office in 2013 as South Korea’s first woman president. She was brought down after being found guilty of colluding with a confidante to receive tens of billions of won from major conglomerates to help her family and fund non-profit foundations she owned.
Her case has been heard in different courts, including a retrial in July last year, but the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday to uphold a 20-year jail term and fine of 18 billion won ($16.38 million) exhausts her legal avenues.
Park, 68, who has been in jail since March 31, 2017, has denied wrongdoing. She was not present in court.
The end of the legal process clears the way for a presidential pardon, which her supporters called for.
“President Park Geun-hye is innocent,” the right-wing Our Republican Party said in a statement calling for her to be freed as soon as possible.
The chief of the ruling Democratic party, Lee Nak-yon, has floated the idea of a pardon for Park and another ex-president, Lee Myung-bak, also in jail on corruption charges, in the name of national unity.
Park is a divisive figure in a country where old Cold War fault lines between right and left can still define political rivalry.
When asked about possible pardon, an official at the presidential Blue House said that it was inappropriate to raise the issue immediately after the court ruling, and that Park’s case should stand as an historical lesson.
A top aide to President Moon Jae-in, who is a liberal, had said the president would make a decision on the question of a pardon for Park that reflects the will of the people.
Society appears split down the middle.
A survey by the pollster Realmeter last week found 47.7% of respondents in favour of a pardon and 48% against.
Samsung Electronics Co Ltd Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee faces a final court ruling on Monday on whether he returns to jail on charges he bribed an associate of Park.
Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Robert Birsel
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