International review Investigation

South Korea: Park Geun-hye denounces trial as ‘political revenge’

Park Geun-hye arrives in handcuffs for her trial in Seoul on Monday. Source: Choi Jun-seok/AP.

This material belongs to: The Guardian.

Deposed president speaks out as defence team resigns in protest at her treatment, and international lawyers appeal to UN.

Park Geun-hye, the deposed South Korean president, has denounced her bribery and corruption trial as “political revenge” after her entire legal team resigned in protest against her treatment in detention.

Speaking publicly for the first time since her trial began six months ago, Park told a hearing at the Seoul central district court on Monday: “I was supposed to be released today, but the court issued another arrest warrant … I can’t accept its decision.”

Late last week the court extended her detention until April next year, citing a potential risk that she would attempt to destroy evidence. Her first six-month period of detention expired on Monday.

“My lawyers and I felt helpless,” Park said, according to the Korea Times. “I have lost faith that the court will do a fair job in accordance with the constitution and conscience.”

In an outburst that appeared to be directed at her successor as South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, Park claimed her treatment was politically motivated.

“I hope I will be the last victim of political revenge in the name of the rule of law,” she said.

Calls for Park’s release are building after international lawyers acting for the former president approached the UN in an attempt to secure her release from “inhuman and degrading” detention to undergo urgent medical treatment.

A legal team led by Rodney Dixon QC said they were “dismayed” by the court’s decision to extend Park’s detention by a further six months.

Park, who was arrested soon after her impeachment in March, faces a possible life sentence if found guilty of bribery – the most serious charge – in a case that has also ensnared the heir to the Samsung technology empire and dozens of senior politicians and business figures.

The former dictator’s daughter, who was elected South Korea’s first female president in 2012, is accused of colluding with her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, to secure tens of millions of dollars in bribes from businesses in return for political favours.

Lee Jae-yong, the acting chairman of Samsungwas sentenced to five years in prison in August after being found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and other crimes. He is appealing against the verdict, claiming that Park coerced him into helping Choi.

A pale-looking Park, who arrived at the court on Monday in handcuffs, insisted she was innocent.

“I never accepted or granted requests for favours while in office,” she said. “I believe it has been fully revealed during the course of the trial that the corresponding suspicions are not true.”

Park said the last six months had been “a horrible and miserable time” during which she had “endured pain in my body and mind”.

She added: “I had trust in a person who later betrayed me. As a result, I have lost my honour and everything else in life.”

Her international legal team – which is separate from the defence lawyers who have been representing her in her corruption trial – has asked the UN working group on arbitrary detention to recommend that she be granted a conditional release, although the ultimate decision rests with the South Korean courts.

“The UN is looking at our application urgently and the South Korean authorities need to respond,” Dixon told the Guardian. “We have asked the UN to address the matter as swiftly as possible because every day counts.”

Park, 65, suffers from chronic lower back pain, osteoarthritis in her knee and shoulder joints, and Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands.

“Our point that we’ve been highlighting to the UN is that her condition has certainly been aggravated by being in detention and that if she doesn’t get proper medical attention it’ll only get worse,” said Dixon, a human rights lawyer based in London.

“If you could release her you could have very clear conditions in place – you could even put her under house arrest – and her health conditions could be treated.”

In a submission to the UN, the lawyers said Park’s ongoing detention, despite her deteriorating health, “constituted a violation of her fundamental human rights, including her right against arbitrary detention, her right against inhuman and degrading treatment, and her right to a fair trial”.

They added that it was a matter of “extreme concern” that South Korean courts had turned down her repeated requests to be released during the trial, even after she collapsed during a hearing.

“Our biggest fear is that she will have a complete breakdown, and that is why we are urging an intervention now so that she doesn’t get into the position where it becomes completely intolerable,” Dixon said.

The resignation of Park’s seven-member defence team means the trial cannot continue until replacement state lawyers have been appointed. The interruption could cause a long delay in the trial, since they will have to review more than 100,000 pages of evidence.

Her lawyers said the decision to extend her detention was proof that the principle of the presumption of innocence was collapsing, according to Yonhap news agency.

“As we’ve reached a conclusion that any defence argument for the defendant is meaningless, all of us decided to resign,” one of her lawyers, Yoo Yeong-ha, told the court.

Health concerns aside, Park’s international lawyers claimed that her “inhuman and degrading” detention includes sleep deprivation, abusive and coercive interrogations, and excessively rough treatment that has left her with bruises from handcuffs.

“It is internationally accepted that detention is the exception under international human rights standards, and is only justified in exceptional circumstances,” they said. “None of these pertain in the present case, which does not concern violent crimes.”