GWANGJU, South Korea: Fifteen crew of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, mostly children, went on trial on Tuesday on charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the shout going up of “murderer” as the captain entered the court.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three senior crew were charged with homicide, facing a maximum sentence of death. Two were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Nine were charged with negligence, which can also carry jail terms.
But family members appeared to have already convicted the crew who were caught on video abandoning ship, the captain in his underwear, while the children, obeying orders, waited in their cabins for further instructions.
As the defendants were led in, someone one shouted: “That guy is the captain, isn’t he? Murderer!”
One relative held up a sign that read: “You are not human. You are beneath animals.” An altercation arose between the relatives and security guards who tried to take the sign away.
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn, sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
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,” 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 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.”