UK & World News

  • 10 June 2014, 12:54

South Korea: Crew Of Sunken Ferry Go On Trial

Fifteen ferry workers have gone on trial in South Korea, charged over the deaths of more than 300 people in April's ferry disaster.

Heavy security surrounded the arrival of the crew at the district court in Gwangju.

Local TV images showed the ferry captain, Lee Joon-Seok, being led into the court followed by the rest of the crew.

Captain Lee, 69, and three other crew members face murder charges for which they could receive the death penalty.

They are accused of abandoning the ferry having issued an order to the passengers to remain in their cabins. The rest of the crew face lesser charges of negligence.

The Sewol ferry sank on April 16. It had been travelling from the port of Incheon to the southern island of Jeju.

Almost two months after the sinking, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 others remain missing. Some 250 of those who died were children, most from one high school in Seoul.

One hundred relatives of those who died have been permitted to sit through the trial, some in an annex to the court. The proceedings are being relayed to them via video-link.

As the defendants entered the courtroom, one family member is reported to have yelled: "You murderers. Can you even eat?!"

The judge tried to calm proceedings, saying: "I also have children. I empathise with you but please control yourself."

Speaking on behalf of the relatives, spokesman Kim Byung-Kwon said: "They say when time passes wounds heal, but for us it's as if time has stopped. Even nowadays when I see children wearing school uniform coming home from school, it feels as if our children will say: 'Mum, Dad I'm home'."

A total of 172 people, including 22 of the ship's 29 crew members, were rescued. Evidence from some of the survivors will form part of the prosecution's case.

The chief prosecutor, Park Jae-Eok, was visibly emotional as he addressed the court.

"These good students innocently waited in the ferry as instructed. They were confined inside and couldn't attempt to escape. They left only words: 'Mum, dad I love you'," he said.

There are serious concerns the trial will never be a fair one. The South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has already stated that the captain's actions are - in her words - akin to murder, views which are shared by the relatives.

"If the defendant had announced an evacuation? when they were escaping, if they had made the announcement, the children might have lived... If this is not murder what is? The defendants not only killed the passengers but also killed the family members' soul," the families' spokesman added.

To argue a case of murder successfully, prosecution lawyers will need to prove the captain and crew left the ship knowing the passengers were likely to die on board.

However, shortly after his arrest, Captain Lee insisted he believed the passengers would have been in more danger had they evacuated.

"At the time, the area had high waves and it was very cold. Regardless of whether they wore life jackets, they would have drifted away and faced many other difficulties," the captain said.

There were angry scenes outside the court, with one relative holding a placard reading: "You are not human. You are beneath animals." The sign was pulled away from him.