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The move by the authorities to allow Friday's verdict to be broadcast live was unprecedented, but they cited extraordinary public interest in the case.

Park and her lawyers were not present in the court to hear the verdict. An arrest warrant was issued for Park shortly after she was removed from office.

Park has legions of loyal supporters, majority older conservatives who remember her father's authoritarian 18-year rule, beginning in 1961, when their country began its remarkable surge towards becoming an economic power.

Former South Korean president Park Geun Hye has now received a prison sentence of 24 years, following her impeachment.

"Given her attitude and public anger over her scandal that remains raw, it will be hard to create a political environment in favour of her release any time soon", Jeong told AFP.

The first major challenge of her presidency came in 2014 when the Sewol ferry sunk, killing more than 300. Media reports say that Choi's father was a cult leader and allegedly used his ties with Park to take bribes from government officials and businessmen.

'I sentence the accused to 24 years in prison and 18 billion won in fines'.

The court said in its ruling that Park abused her presidential status and the power entrusted in her by the people, and has shown no signs of repentance.

The former leader previously denied any wrongdoing, and the sentence was announced in her absence.

Park becomes the third former South Korean leader to be convicted on criminal charges after leaving office, joining Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who were both found guilty of treason and corruption in the 1990s. Park Geun Hye did not attend the trial.

She was arrested shortly afterwards, and has been in detention ever since.

Hundreds of pro-Park supporters were outside the courthouse for the verdict and sentencing.

The disgraceful downfall of the country's first female president is an end with which many former South Korean presidents are very familiar.

Choi is the daughter of a cult leader, who - as stated in a leaked 2007 United States diplomatic cable - had "complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years".

Prosecutors sought a 30-year jail sentence and an £80m fine on charges that included bribery, abuse of power and coercion. Similar charges were laid against Choi, while Samsung Samsung Group chief Lee Jae Yong and Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong Bin were charged with bribing Choi.

Many protesters sat on the pavement in tears while others began a protest march.