The Constitutional Court will hear closing arguments for President Park Geun-hye’s trial next Friday, adding momentum to expectations that the disgraced leader’s fate will be decided in early March.
After the 14th hearing wrapped up on Thursday, Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi declared that the judges plan to end the hearings next Friday. She requested Park’s lawyers and the National Assembly, which acts as the prosecution in the trial, to submit their written positions by Thursday and prepare to make closing arguments on Friday.
“The power of the president, the head of the administration, has been suspended and the vacuum in the state affairs and the subsequent social chaos are continuing for more than two months,” Lee said.
“We have worked hard for a fair and speedy trial,” Lee added, noting that the judges already questioned dozens of witnesses, reviewed investigation reports, verified various facts and decided to hear the closing arguments next week.
The National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Park on Dec. 9, 2016 for allowing her secret inner circle, including controversial friend Choi Soon-sil, to influence state affairs. It also said Park failed to protect the lives of the citizens during the Sewol ferry’s sinking on April 16, 2014 due to her nonfeasance in the crucial early hours of the rescue operation.
Park’s presidential powers were suspended immediately and the court was given 180 days to decide whether to remove her permanently. Six of its nine judges have to confirm the legislature’s action. Since then, the Constitutional Court held three preparatory meetings and 14 hearings until Thursday. Of the nine judges, Chief Justice Park Han-chul retired last month, and the trial has been operated by eight judges since then. Acting Chief Justice Lee’s tenure will end on March 13 and speculations were high that the court will try to rule before another vacancy is created in order to protect the integrity of the ruling.
Through the 14 hearings, the court heard from 27 witnesses, including Choi and former Blue House aides. Two more hearings will take place until Wednesday and closing arguments will be delivered on Friday, although Park’s lawyers protested the court’s decision to hear closing arguments then.
“The court scheduled it in a hurry,” said Lee Joong-hwan, one of the lawyers. “This is a very special case, and it is dangerous to wrap up the trial without sufficient hearings.”
It remains to be seen if Park will attend the closing session to argue for herself. “I will have to consult with the president about the appearance,” Lee said.
After the closing argument, the judges will hold conferences, hold a vote and come to a verdict. Then more time will be needed to draft a ruling, review and confirm it. That process took two weeks in the trial of late President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 for breach of political neutrality before a general election. Roh was impeached on March 12, 2004, and the Constitutional Court held hearings through April 30. The court ruled on May 14 not to remove him from office.
If the court decides against Park, she will be removed from office immediately and a presidential by-election will take place in two months. If the court decides in her favor, she will resume her presidency immediately.
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]