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Trial opens of 'Rasputin' at heart of South Korea crisis

8_40920134.2 (40920179) - 19_12_2016 - SKOREA-POLITICS-SCANDAL-PARK-COURT.jpg
Choi Soon Sil, the woman at the centre of a corruption scandal that triggered the biggest political crisis for a generation in South Korea, denied all charges as her fraud trial opened on Monday.

[SEOUL] Choi Soon Sil, the woman at the centre of a corruption scandal that triggered the biggest political crisis for a generation in South Korea, denied all charges as her fraud trial opened on Monday.

During the preliminary hearing at the Seoul Central District Court, her lawyer countered prosecution allegations that Ms Choi had conspired with the country's now-impeached president, Park Geun Hye, and former presidential aide Ahn Jong Beom to strong-arm "donations" from major conglomerates.

"A major focus today was on collusive relations. We stressed that there was no collusion between the defendant, Ahn or the president," lawyer Lee Kyung Jae told reporters afterwards.

It was the first public appearance since October for Ms Choi, who has been dubbed Korea's "female Rasputin" for the influence she wielded over President Park.

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Sporting black-rimmed glasses and a surgical mask that obscured her face, Ms Choi, who has been in custody for the past seven weeks, was brought to the court in a special prison bus.

Television footage showed her handcuffed and wearing a blue-grey prison outfit with a serial number on the chest as she was taken off the bus and led into the court building by a female guard.

Minutes later she entered the courtroom - minus the mask and handcuffs - and sat down next to her lawyer, her head lowered.

Ms Choi, who was in Germany when the corruption scandal broke, said she had felt "willing to be punished" when she returned to South Korea.

"But now, I think I must clarify myself," she said in court.

Asked by the judge whether that meant she denied all the charges, Ms Choi answered: "Yes".

The 60-year-old is being tried for coercion and abuse of power - largely related to the corporate funding of two dubious foundations she controlled and allegedly plundered.

A long-time friend of Ms Park's, Ms Choi is accused of leveraging her relationship with the president to strong-arm large companies like Samsung into handing over tens of millions of dollars.

The accusations that Ms Park colluded with Ms Choi formed the basis of an impeachment motion against the president that was passed by parliament earlier this month.

The motion is now being considered by the Constitutional Court which has up to 180 days to make a ruling on whether to endorse or reject the president's ouster.

The last time Ms Choi was seen in public was in late October when she attended a summons at the Seoul prosecutor's office and famously lost a much-photographed Prada shoe in the media scrum outside the building.

Ms Choi was not obliged to turn up for Monday's hearing, which was largely procedural and focused on preparing the way for the trial proper.

But her lawyer said she had volunteered to appear.

"She has expressed a willingness to participate sincerely in the trial," Mr Lee was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

Ms Choi was criticised for refusing to attend ongoing hearings of a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal.

Ms Park is also accused of ordering aides to leak state documents to Ms Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in some state affairs, including the appointment of top officials.

Ms Choi's late father was a shadowy religious figure called Choi Tae Min, who was married six times, had multiple pseudonyms and set up his own cult-like group known as the Church of Eternal Life.

Choi Tae Min befriended a traumatised Ms Park after the 1974 assassination of her mother - whom he said had appeared to him in a dream.

He became a mentor to the future president who subsequently formed a close bond with his daughter that persisted after Ms Park's 2012 election victory.