Hostile spectators cursing, shouting and weeping behind them, 15 crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared in court Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers.
As the crew members stood with bowed heads before three Gwangju District Court judges, families of the victims struggled to contain their fury. Many wore yellow ribbons in memory of those killed in the April 16 accident, most of whom were students on a school trip. The crowd erupted when one crew member appeared to smile, and a judge asked the defendants to show respect. The judges also asked the crowd to be quiet.
“Everybody should be sentenced to death,” one spectator said. One crew member wept so hard she couldn’t identify herself to the judges.
Because of time constraints Tuesday, only 11 of the 15 entered pleas of not guilty. The remaining four are scheduled to appear at a hearing in one week.
All surviving crew members responsible for the ship’s navigation have been charged with negligence and with failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Several of the defendants acknowledged some responsibility at Tuesday’s hearing but denied that they caused the sinking, saying they had little control over the stability of the ferry, which was overloaded with cargo.
After expressing his condolences to the victims’ families, Judge Lim Joung-youb emphasised the rights of the defendants to make their own arguments.
The pervading public hostility against the crew has raised questions about the fairness of the trial. They are being defended by six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom started practicing law only this year. The court said in a statement that it will guarantee the rights of both the defendants and the victims.
Capt. Lee Joon-seok and three other crew members are charged with homicide — a charge that could carry the death penalty, though South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that the passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.
Lawyers of crew members denied there was collusion, saying the sailors were confused, some were injured and some panicked. They also said that most of these crew members were not in a position to act independently without orders from the captain or first mates.
Crew members also denied that their actions caused the sinking. The captain and the first mate denied they were responsible for the overloading of cargo or improper stowage of cargo, because the cargo was overseen by the employer, Chonghaejin continued…