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(News Focus) Constitutional Court to decide Park's fate

2016/12/09 19:40

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- Eyes are now on the Constitutional Court which has the final say on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, after parliament on Friday voted to oust the chief executive over her alleged involvement in an influence-peddling scandal that has been roiling the country for weeks.

The 300-seat National Assembly voted 234 to 56 for the impeachment, the second such vote in the country's history. The last took place in 2004 when then-President Roh Moo-hyun was voted out of his seat, but later reinstated by a Constitutional Court ruling.

The court now has 180 days to decide whether to approve the parliament's decision. With late former President Roh, it took 63 days for the court to dismiss the National Assembly's request.

While it is unclear how the court will rule, it is widely expected to back lawmakers' decision, experts here have predicted.

"The grounds for the impeachment of Park (if proven true) are similar to those applied when dismissing ordinary government officials," said Hwang Do-ssu, a professor at Seoul's Konkuk University who served as a researcher at the Constitutional Court.

"It is hard to find precedents where a dismissal of a government official for committing similar wrongdoings as Park's was overturned," he said, though basing his premise on Park's allegations being found true.

President Park Geun-hye attends an emergency Cabinet meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016, after the National Assembly passed an impeachment bill against her in a vote of 234 to 56 with two abstentions. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has become acting president, follows her. (Yonhap) President Park Geun-hye attends an emergency Cabinet meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016, after the National Assembly passed an impeachment bill against her in a vote of 234 to 56 with two abstentions. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has become acting president, follows her. (Yonhap)

Last month, state prosecutors named the incumbent president as an accomplice in her close friend Choi Soon-sil's alleged meddling in state affairs and bullying local conglomerates, marking the first such case in the country's history.

Choi and two former senior presidential secretaries were indicted over their allegations but Park avoided indictment due to a constitutional clause that stipulates a president is immune from prosecution except in cases of insurrection or treason.

Park has consistently refuted any legal wrongdoing and rejected claims she was an accomplice. She has made clear that every effort will be made to clear her name in upcoming legal proceedings.

"Constitutional justices will judge based on common sense and legal ground, but they are now in a situation to consider the people's rage and shock," a former constitutional justice said, asking not to be named. "The fact that over 1 million people gathered (in downtown Seoul to protest against the president) will be taken into consideration in the process of making their decision."

   Over the past six weekends, rallies continued throughout the country, with those held in downtown Seoul gathering more than 1 million protesters, mostly ordinary citizens. Those gathered called for Park to step down.

The former judge said the latest case is "totally different" from Roh's where the impeachment was pushed by the majority party, without having clear grounds.

"President Park Geun-hye handed over sovereignty to Choi Soon-sil who was not elected, in violation of the first article of the Constitution," Lim Ji-bong, a law school professor at Seoul-based Sogang University, said.

"As it is clear that the Constitution was violated, no one out of the nine justices will reject the impeachment," he claimed.

Citizens shout with joy at the news of the passage of an impeachment bill against President Park Geun-hye in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016. The Assembly passed the bill with 234 in favor and 56 against, with two abstentions. (Yonhap) Citizens shout with joy at the news of the passage of an impeachment bill against President Park Geun-hye in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016. The Assembly passed the bill with 234 in favor and 56 against, with two abstentions. (Yonhap)

Former constitutional justice Lee She-yoon, meanwhile, insisted that the judges should not be influenced by the public anger, calling for a prudent review of the case based on political neutrality.

"If people push the court as if impeachment is the right conclusion, what decision it would make is apparent" he said. "It would be right to leave them free of pressure from public opinion."

   He said the court should give Park a fair chance to defend herself.

Another court official, who asked not to be named, also underlined the importance of a thorough review of the case.

"As the procedural justification is as important, the Constitutional Court should fully listen to what the involved parties have to say," the official said.

The Constitutional Court held its first meeting later in the day to discuss how it should proceed with the case.

After taking preparatory steps, the court will summon related figures, question witnesses and review evidence in multiple hearings before making the final decision.

If Park is impeached, South Korea must hold a presidential election within two months of her exit. Until then, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will serve as the acting president of the country.

Television sets lined up for display at Yongsan ETLand in Seoul are all tuned to the live broadcast from the National Assembly on the results of a vote on the impeachment motion against President Park Geun-hye on Dec. 9, 2016. The motion was passed 234 to 56 in a vote by 299 lawmakers, with two abstentions and seven invalid votes. (Yonhap) Television sets lined up for display at Yongsan ETLand in Seoul are all tuned to the live broadcast from the National Assembly on the results of a vote on the impeachment motion against President Park Geun-hye on Dec. 9, 2016. The motion was passed 234 to 56 in a vote by 299 lawmakers, with two abstentions and seven invalid votes. (Yonhap)

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