SEOUL: Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-Ah, charged with aviation safety violations following a now notorious “nut rage” incident that triggered a national uproar, pleaded not guilty at the opening of her trial Monday.
Cho, who has been in custody since her formal arrest three weeks ago, was whisked into the western district court complex in Seoul by bus through a crowd of media.
Wearing a green prison uniform, she stood with her head bowed in the packed courtroom, answering preliminary questions in a near-whisper.
The 40-year-old daughter of Korean Air chief Cho Yang-Ho could face a maximum 10-year sentence if convicted of aviation safety violations, and a possible five years on additional charges of coercing KAL staff to give false testimony and interference in the execution of duty.
The charges all stem from an incident in which Cho allegedly forced the chief purser off a December 5 New York-Seoul KAL flight, compelling the taxiing plane to return to the gate so he could disembark.
Cho, who was a KAL vice president at the time, had taken exception to being served macadamia nuts she had not asked for — and in a bag, not a bowl.
She has denied physically assaulting the chief steward, Park Chang-Jin, who says she made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.
In their opening statements, Cho’s lawyers argued the charges were based on “exaggerated statements” and that there had been no breach of safety laws, given that the plane was on the ground and had not even reached the runway when it turned back.
“The charge that she violated aviation safety rules should be reconsidered,” her lawyer said, adding that Cho was “extremely remorseful” about her behaviour.
– ‘Foolish act’ –
The incident triggered a huge public backlash. Cho was seen as emblematic of a generation of spoilt and arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebols,” that dominate the South Korean economy.
Cho resigned from all her KAL posts and publicly apologised for her behaviour, which her father also criticised as a “foolish act”.
The story hit international headlines and was seen as something of a national embarrassment, with South Korean media commentators suggesting Cho had shamed the country.
She was formally arrested on December 30 and has been detained in custody since then.
The family’s image was further tarnished when prosecutors revealed that Cho’s younger sister — also a senior KAL executive — had sent her a text message promising to take “revenge” on her behalf.
The sister later apologised for her remarks.
Cho appeared in court along with a company executive, who was indicted for evidence tampering, and a transport ministry official accused of leaking details of a government probe into the case.
The transport ministry plans to sanction KAL with a limited flight route ban that could last for up to a month, or with fines of up to $2 million.
Separately, it has vowed to punish eight of its officials after admitting their investigation into the affair was biased in favour of Cho and Korean Air.