Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three senior crew members 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.
Emotions ran high in court as 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 in the packed courtroom
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 broke out between 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
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
on two rows of benches.
The 15 have been in detention since they were charged in May.
A family member spoke on behalf of others at the start of the
hearing, imploring the defendants to tell the truth.
"Would you have done the same if these were your children? Please
imagine for a moment that they were your children who died and tell
The lawyer for the captain, in an opening statement, said his client
had no power to stop the ferry company's practice of overloading the
vessel with cargo.
The lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, also said the captain had not meant to
cause the accident, and there were therefore no grounds for the
"It wasn't like he had a grudge against the children so it's
difficult to accept the prosecution's argument that he wilfully
neglected the duty of rescue and escaped to save himself," Lee told
The sound of sobbing was heard throughout the courtroom as the state
presented its case and the head prosecutor's voice broke when he
recounted the last moments of some of the children.
"I DON'T KNOW WHY THIS IS HAPPENING"
One child was caught on video, recovered later, staring death in the
face, the prosecutor said.
"I'm not a criminal, I don't know why this is happening," the child
was quoted as saying. "I haven't done anything that bad."
The court suspended the hearing and set the next court appearance
for next Tuesday.
About 20 relatives stood outside the court waiting for the
defendants' bus to appear. Park Eun-hee, the mother of a girl who
died on the ferry, denounced the crew's earlier defence that they
[to top of second column]
"We mothers say this. The crew claimed that they had panic disorder
so they didn't know what to do or couldn't save the passengers," she
said sobbing. "But during that time, our children were crying as
they called their parents and said they were scared."
judge who handles media affairs, Hahn Jee-hyung, said the defendants
were unlikely to get a concerted defence in the highly publicised
"They were appointed by the court, so we hope there is no criticism
of them," Hahn told reporters before the hearing. A panel of three
judges presided over the first day of the trial, as the state called
for justice to be served and the seven defence lawyers presented
The captain and one senior crew member had written to the court
pleading leniency, court documents show, but details were not
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
Police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and
subsidiaries of the investment firm held by Yoo's family but they
have yet to go on trial. The coastguard, which is set to be broken
up, is also facing investigation for suspected negligence in the
course of the rescue operation.
President Park Geun-hye, who days after the disaster said the
actions of some of the crew were tantamount to murder, nominated a
former journalist as her choice to be the new prime minister to
replace the incumbent who resigned over the government's slow and
ineffective response to the disaster.
Moon Chang-geuk was expected to take charge of overhauling
bureaucracy and reforming safety standards as pledged by Park.
A lawyer appearing for the one of the crew in hearings held earlier
behind closed doors 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
(Editing by Jack Kim and Nick Macfie)
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