Trial of crew of sunken South Korean Sewol ferry begins
Capt Lee Joon-seok and three senior crew face homicide charges and possible death sentence
Family members of passengers on the sunken Sewol ferry struggle with a security officer at the trial of ferry crew members at Gwangju District Court, Gwangju, South Korea, today. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/Reuters
Fifteen crew of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, mostly children, went on trial today on charges ranging from negligence to homicide.
Capt Lee Joon-seok (68), and three senior crew were charged with homicide, facing a maximum sentence of death.
Two others were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Nine were charged with negligence, which can also carry jail terms.
An altercation arose between angry relatives and security guards as the accused were brought in.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
Mourning family members packed the court in Gwangju, the closest city to the scene of the disaster, as the 15 were led in and seated in two rows of benches.
The 15 have been in detention since they were charged in May.
A Gwangju judge who handles media affairs, Hahn Jee-hyung, said the defendants were unlikely to get a full and concerted defence in the highly publicised case.
“The state-appointed lawyers have taken on the case out of public interest and not of their own will,” Mr Hahn told reporters before the hearing got under way. “They were appointed by the court, so we hope there is no criticism of them.”
A panel of three judges presided on the first day of the trial, as the state called for justice to be served and the seven defence lawyers presented their case.
South Korea has in recent years revised its criminal law to allow defendants to opt for jury trials, but most of the 15 crew members chose against it.
The captain and one senior crew member had written to the court pleading for leniency, court documents show, but details were not available.
Authorities are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, head of the family that owned the operator of the doomed ferry, on charges of embezzlement seen as a key factor that led to compromised safety management.
The absence of determined defence may mean that the crew’s side of the story - whether, for instance, they were adequately trained or whether they were given strict orders to abandon ship - may never be heard in court.
One lawyer, appearing for the one of the crew in hearings held behind closed doors to decide the validity of arrest warrants, confessed to being torn between professional obligation and the resignation that lawyers could not make any difference amid a nationwide witch hunt.
“It is a burden for every lawyer, because the crime is something that can hardly be forgiven,” he said in the small coastal town of Mokpo last month.
“It’s not just that one person died. There were hundreds. All I could say to the judges is ‘we will await your wise decision’. That was it.”