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Park, South Korea’s disgraced ex-president, has been released after nearly 5 years in prison

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Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was released from prison on Friday, nearly five years after being convicted of corruption, fueling speculation about whether she will play any role in the upcoming presidential election in March.

Park, 69, became the country’s first democratically elected leader to be deposed when the Constitutional Court upheld a parliament vote to impeach her in 2017 over a scandal that also resulted in the imprisonment of the CEOs of two conglomerates, Samsung (KS:005930) and Lotte. In January, South Korea’s Supreme Court Upheld Park’s 20-year prison sentence after she was found guilty of conspiring with a friend, who is also in prison, to receive tens of billions of won from companies, mostly to fund her friend’s family. Park was granted a special pardon by President Moon Jae-in last week, citing her deteriorating health and expressing hope to “overcome unfortunate past history and promote national unity.”

The pardon was delivered to Park at the hospital where she has been staying for a month at midnight on Thursday, according to the Yonhap news agency, and she remained there on Friday. The hospital did not respond to requests for comment. According to her lawyer, Park, the daughter of a former military ruler, apologized for causing public concern and thanked Moon for making a “tough decision.”

Park’s release comes at a time when her former party, the main opposition conservative People Power Party, and Moon’s Democratic Party are locked in a presidential race. Her detention divided the country, with right-wing, pro-Park groups holding weekly rallies to condemn Moon and his policies and demand Park’s release until COVID-19 distancing rules stifled the rallies last year. Hundreds of Park’s supporters braved the cold to arrive at the hospital where she was being treated late Thursday to celebrate her release, with over 1,000 bouquets of flowers arriving.

 According to Yonhap, about 200 people protested her release in downtown Seoul. It was unclear whether Park would return to politics, but she stated in a memoir published on Thursday that her conviction was politically motivated and that she hoped to “meet the people again one day.”