GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA – The trial for 15 crew of a South Korean ferry that sank in April, killing more than 300 people, most of them children, began Tuesday on charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the word “murderer” ringing out as the captain entered the court.
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.
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 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 traveling 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 on two rows of benches.
The defendants 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 truth.”
The attorney for the captain, in an opening statement for the defense, 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 homicide charge.
“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 court.
Sounds of sobs were heard throughout the courtroom as the state presented its case and the head prosecutor’s voice broke as he recounted the last moments of some of the children.
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 said. “I haven’t done anything that bad.”
A Gwangju judge who handles media affairs, Hahn Jee-hyung, said the defendants were unlikely to get a full and concerted defense in the highly publicized 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 began.
“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 defense 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.
Police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and subsidiaries of the investment firm held by Yoo’s family but they have yet to be brought to trial. The coast guard, which is set to be broken up, is also facing investigation on charges of negligence in the course of the rescue operation.
President Park Geun-hye 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 pledged by Park.
A lawyer appearing for one of the crew, in hearings held earlier 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.”