Trial opens for S. Korea ferry captain and crew
GWANGJU: The highly charged trial of 15 crew members from South Korea’s ferry disaster began Tuesday to shouts of “murderers” from victims’ relatives, who called for the defendants to be executed.
With divers still searching the submerged vessel for bodies and emotions sky-high less than two months after the tragedy, there are concerns over how fair the trial in the southern city of Gwangju will be.
The Sewol ferry was carrying 476 passengers — including 325 high school students — when it capsized and sank on April 16.
So far 292 have been confirmed dead, with 12 still unaccounted for.
Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through willful negligence,” which carries the death penalty.
Eleven other members of the crew are being tried on lesser charges of criminal negligence.
Wearing numbered prison uniforms, handcuffed and with their arms bound to their waists with rope, the defendants were brought to the courthouse well before the trial began.
They eventually entered the courtroom to angry cries from some relatives, prompting a warning from one of the three judges that the hearing would be halted if there were further disturbances.
Outside the courthouse, other relatives demonstrated with placards, one of which appealed to the judges to “let the family members execute them.”
The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Lee and the others chose to abandon the 6,825-ton ferry while hundreds of people were still trapped inside the heavily listing vessel before it capsized.
A handful of crew members who stayed and tried to guide passengers to safety were among those who died.
The tragedy stunned South Korea, knocking the entire country off its stride and unleashing a wave of public anger, as it emerged that incompetence, corruption and greed had all contributed to the scale of the disaster.
Much of that rage focused on Lee and his crew, especially after the coastguard released a video showing the captain, dressed in a sweater and underwear, scrambling to safety.
Presenting the charges in court, the prosecution said the defendants had ample opportunity to conduct a proper evacuation but failed to do so, preferring to abandon ship in the knowledge that the passengers left behind would die.
“Stern punishment will be the first step to make a safe country,” said senior prosecutor Park Jae-Eok.
Lee Gwang-Jae, a lawyer representing the captain, suggested his client was being made a scapegoat by those who shared more responsibility for the disaster.
“He could not take steps to rescue passengers because the ship tilted heavily,” the lawyer said, arguing that the charge of murder should not stand.
South Korean media coverage of the crew’s arrest and arraignment was often colored by a presumption of guilt, and just weeks after the disaster President Park Geun-Hye stated that the crew’s actions had been “tantamount to murder.”
Such unequivocal statements in a heated atmosphere have fueled concerns about the trial’s fairness.
“It will be a very difficult case and the court will be under a lot of pressure,” said Jason Ha, a senior attorney with a leading law firm in Seoul.
“Public emotion is still running very high and, with the police still searching for the absconding ferry owner, the captain and crew are the target of all that anger,” Ha said.