UIJEONGBU -- Former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook was released from prison early Wednesday after finishing up a two-year sentence for taking an illegal political donation.
Han, prime minister from 2006 to 2007, was put behind bars in 2015 after the Supreme Court convicted her of accepting about 900 million won ($793,301) in illegal political funds from the head of a local construction company. The conviction also stripped her of her parliamentary seat.
On Wednesday, dozens of supporters and well-wishers greeted Han as she emerged from the prison in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, around 5:10 a.m. She was given a bouquet of flowers as supporters chanted her name.
"There have been harsh pains for the past two years, but I finally got to meet a new world," Han said after getting out of the prison. "I offer inexpressible words of thanks to all of you for coming all the way to Uijeongbu to greet me so early in the morning. ... It's because of the trust and love that you provided me with that I was able to overcome this hardship."
Han, 73, didn't take any questions.
Former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook (R) is greeted by supporters after her release from prison on Aug. 23, 2017. (Yonhap)
Those greeting the former three-term lawmaker included her political allies, such as Rep. Moon Hee-sang, former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan and former Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil.
Han has long claimed innocence, arguing that she never accepted the money and the charges against her were fabricated as part of political revenge by a conservative government against the former liberal administration of late President Roh Moo-hyun.
Han's ruling Democratic Party welcomed her release.
"Former Prime Minister Han was released early this morning. I sincerely welcome her returning to the bosom of the family after enduring times of hardship," Choo Mi-ae, leader of the party, said during its Supreme Council meeting.
Choo said she and the party were disheartened to see Han jailed as they believed in truth and conscience, apparently meaning that Han was wrongfully charged. She also called for reforms to make sure such "judicial ills" won't happen again.
Choo said that the judicial branch has often colluded with governments in human rights violations, including the 1991 fabrication of charges against a student activist that he wrote a suicide note on behalf of a dissident who set himself on fire and died in protest of the government.
The student, Kang Ki-hoon, was convicted of abetting a suicide and served three years in prison. But a government commission found in a 2012 reinvestigation that he was wrongfully charged. The Supreme Court ruled in a retrial in 2015 that Kang was innocent.
Opposition parties slammed Choo for denying the court's ruling.
"I can't help but be truly appalled," Lee Jae-man, a member of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party's Supreme Council, said in a Facebook posting. "This amounts to the ruling party's chief trampling on the authority and dignity of the judicial branch. Do they think they can overturn court rulings now that they have taken power?"
Rep. Khang Hyo-shang, a spokesman of the party, also accused Choo of rocking the foundation of the rule of law and the Constitution with her remark, made a day earlier, that both the indictment and the trial of Han were wrong.
The minor opposition People's Party also criticized Choo.
"This is an irresponsible remark infringing upon the independence of the judicial branch," Rep. Kim Dong-cheol, the party's floor leader, said. "Denying court rulings made in the previous government is typical of dichotomous thinking and an evil of the old evils." (Yonhap)