The trial for the Sewol ferry captain and crew members facing charges ranging from murder to negligence began today, even as search operations to find the remaining 12 bodies were still underway.
Captain Lee Joon-seok and three other crew members could potentially face the death penalty if found guilty, though Al Jazeera noted that South Korea has not executed anyone since 1997. Two others charged with fleeing and abandoning ship face a maximum sentence of life in prison, while nine were charged with negligence, which also can carry jail terms.
As the defendants entered the court, someone shouted: “Murderer!” More than 90 family members were present for the trial, with one relative holding a sign that prompted an altercation with security guards who tried to confiscate it. The sign read, “You are not human. You are beneath animals.”
The captain’s lawyer said the factors that caused the sinking were out of Lee’s control and that did not abandon the ship, but rather tried to correct the ferry’s balance, according to the Al Jazeera report. The attorney also said the coast guard was better equipped to handle the rescue operation. Meanwhile, prosecutors have submitted 2,000 pieces of evidence.
Lee and the accused crew members were among the first to be rescued the day the South Korean ferry sank on April 16. Although 172 passengers were also saved that day, no survivors were discovered after that. As the ferry, overloaded with cargo, tilted and began sinking after failing to handle a sharp turn, Lee reportedly told his passengers to stay put. The passengers who followed his order eventually were trapped inside the sunken ship. A total of 292 bodies have been recovered so far.
In a press conference a few days after the ferry sank, South Korean President Park Geun-hye likened the crew members’ actions to murder. “The actions of the captain and some crew members just cannot be understood with common sense. The actions are like murder and should not be tolerated,” Park said. Her statement, and the fact that the nation seemed to be sharing in a sense of national outrage following the tragedy, have prompted some outside observers to question whether these crew members can get a fair trial.
The trial is being held in the southeastern city of Gwangju, which is located in Jeolla Province, where the sinking occurred. Six state lawyers will defend the captain and his crew, after private lawyers apparently refused to take their cases because of the national outcry against the defendants. Still, the Gwangju District Court issued a statement saying it will ensure a fair trial.
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