South Korea’s ousted President Park Geun-hye was arrested on Friday over the corruption and abuse of power scandal that brought her down, a court spokesman said.
The Seoul Central District Court ordered Park’s arrest on charges of bribery, abuse of authority, coercion, and leaking government secrets, after a marathon court hearing the previous day.
“It is justifiable and necessary to arrest [Park] as key charges were justified and there is risk of evidence being destroyed,” the court said in a statement.
Television footage of the former leader showed her looking grim and staring straight ahead as she left the prosecutor’s office to be taken into custody.
Despite the early hour, when Park arrived at the jail in a black sedan at around 4.45am (1945 GMT), about 50 supporters were at the gates to greet her, waving national flags and chanting slogans demanding her release.
Park, 65, becomes the third former leader to be arrested over corruption in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, where politics and big business have long been closely tied.
She will now be processed and placed in a cell after changing into prison garb with her prisoner number emblazoned on the chest.
Being taken into custody is a dramatic step in the disgrace of South Korea’s first woman president, and was a key demand of the millions of people who took to the streets to protest against her as the scandal engulfed her leadership last year.
The former leader, who has denied the accusations, was grilled for nearly nine hours in court Thursday as a judge deliberated whether she should be arrested.
Choi Soon-sil, Park’s secret confidante at the heart of the scandal, is already on trial for forcing top local firms including tech giant Samsung to “donate” nearly US$70 million to non-profit foundations, which she allegedly used for personal gain.
Choi is being held at the same detention centre as Park, as is Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong who was also arrested last month in connection to the scandal.
Ahead of the hearing Thursday, prosecutors submitted around 120,000 pages of documents to the Seoul Central District Court relating to the charges against Park, and said it would be “counter to the principle of fairness” if she was not arrested.
“The accused is denying most of the charges, and there is a risk of destroying evidence in the future,” they said.
Opposition lawmakers had called Thursday for Park’s arrest.
“The least she can do as the ex-president who damaged national dignity is to admit her criminal acts, bow her head and seek forgiveness,” said a spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party.
Park is expected to be indicted before April 17 when an official campaign for the next presidential election starts, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
The election to choose her successor will be held on May 9. Moon Jae-in, her rival in 2012 and a former Democratic Party leader leads opinion polls by large margins.
Park, daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, secured the largest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era when she was elected in 2012.
But she was impeached by parliament in December, as the scandal combined with mounting economic and social frustrations to trigger huge candlelit demonstrations. The Constitutional Court later upheld the decision.
Last week she underwent a 21-hour interrogation session at the prosecutors’ office, having refused repeated requests to be interviewed while in power.
She had been “lost for words” when authorities asked for her arrest, the Chosun Ilbo daily quoted an unidentified pro-Park lawmaker as saying.
Another said she had been having “sleepless nights and skipping meals” since moving out of the presidential palace.
Park allegedly offered governmental favours to top businessmen who enriched Choi, including Samsung’s Lee.
She is also accused of letting her friend, a high school graduate with no title or security clearance, handle a wide range of state affairs including nomination of top officials.
Park is also said to have cracked down on thousands of artists who had voiced criticisms of her or her father’s iron-fisted rule from 1961 to 1979.
She has repeatedly apologized for the upset caused by the scandal but not admitted any wrongdoing, blaming Choi for abusing their friendship.