South Korean President Park Geun-hye bows during her speech to the nation at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 29, 2016. (Xinhua/Blue House)
SEOUL, Feb. 28 (Xinhua) -- South Korean special prosecutors on Tuesday branded impeached President Park Geun-hye as a criminal suspect for bribery charge in collusion with her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, who is at the center of the corruption scandal.
The prosecutors, who have been independently dedicated to investigations into the scandal for the past 70 days, planned to indict Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and four Samsung executives later in the day on multiple charges, including bribery.
Lee Kyu-chul, spokesman of the independent counsel team that kicked off investigations on Dec. 21, told the last regular press briefing that Choi Soon-sil will be indicted on bribery as well as charges of abuse of power and the concealment of illegal wealth earned through criminal acts.
The impeached leader will be booked as an accomplice to Choi for the graft charge. The case will be handed over to state prosecutors for further investigations.
State prosecutors had identified the president as a suspect for extortion and abuse of power. The bribery charge was added following the independent counsel team's probe.
By law, a South Korean president gets immune from criminal indictment and detention while in office. If the bill to impeach President Park is upheld by the constitutional court, she will be stripped of those immunities.
The Samsung heir, who has been taken into custody since Feb. 17, will be prosecuted for bribery, embezzlement and the concealment of illegally earned wealth. Four other Samsung executives will be indicted without detention.
Vice Chairman Lee is suspected of paying tens of millions of U.S. dollars in bribes to Choi in exchange for getting support in the controversial merger in 2015 of two Samsung affiliate to create a de-facto holding company.
The merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries was extremely crucial to the vice chairman to inherit the overall management control of Samsung Group, South Korea's largest family-controlled conglomerate, from his father Chairman Lee Kun-hee who has been hospitalized for heart attack for almost three years.
Investigations by the special prosecutors are scheduled to end on Tuesday as Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is serving as acting president, rejected the request for an extended probe into the corruption scandal.
The independent counsel spokesman said the overall investigation results will be formally announced on March 6.
A total of 17 suspects will be brought to court by the special prosecutors along with 13 suspects who have been already indicted over their alleged involvement in the massive scandal.
It would be the highest number of indictment since the special prosecutor system was introduced by the country in 1999. Since then, 12 independent counsels have been nominated to investigate political and business scandals.
The spokesman said it would not be difficult for state prosecutors to launch investigations into other chiefs of the country's conglomerates, called chaebol here, indicating a possible probe into Lotte Group and SK Group.
SK, the country's third-largest conglomerate, is suspected of making donations to two nonprofit foundations Choi used for personal gains in exchange for a presidential pardon of the detain chief.
Lotte, South Korea's biggest operator of department stores and duty free shops and the fifth-largest chaebol, is suspected of making contributions to the Choi-controlled foundations in return for the rejection of the warrant to arrest its chief and the restoration of the license to operate downtown duty free stores.
Suspicions were also raised that Lotte may have agreed to offer land for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment in southeast South Korea, with the restored duty free license and the rejected arrest warrant for its chairman as a quid pro quo.
Lotte signed a contract earlier in the day with the defense ministry to swap its golf course in the Seongju county, North Gyeongsang province for military land in Gyeonggi province near the capital Seoul.
The special prosecutors had focused their probe on Samsung-related allegations, leading to the first detention of the Samsung chief for the first time in the company's 79-year history.
However, the focus on Samsung had failed to look into allegations over other conglomerates.
The spokesman noted chiefs of other conglomerates can be banned from leaving South Korea after consultations with state prosecutors.