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.
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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 Marine Co.
The captain’s lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, said the factors that caused the sinking couldn’t be controlled by a captain who operated the ferry only six days a month as a contract worker.
The captain was the subject of fury and anger when video footage of him escaping in black underpants was released. But his lawyer denied that he fled, saying the coast guard rescued him. The captain tried to correct the ferry’s balance and asked people to wear life vests, even though he was injured, according to his lawyer.
The lawyer said that Park Han-gyeol, the third mate on duty, suffered a panic attack during the sinking and sat and wept in a corner on the bridge.
Some accounts of the sinking given in court have conflicted with what prosecutors told the public.
Most lawyers said crew members did some measures to rescue passengers, citing examples of going back to the ferry to break its windows, rescuing passengers and conducting CPR.
Also for the first time, one sailor said he relayed the evacuation order to a cabin crew. Seo Chung-won, lawyer of Kim Young-ho, a second mate who communicated with a vessel traffic services official during the sinking, said Kim sent an evacuation order to Yang Dae-hong, the chief officer in the cabin area. Yang, who sent out announcements to the rest of the ship, died. Survivors said they heard no evacuation orders and prosecutors argued a timely evacuation order could have saved more lives.
The first court hearings have shown that determining who is responsible for the sinking and the botched rescue process will not be easy. Coast guard personnel are being investigated over whether their rescue measures were appropriate, and court hearings will begin later this month for Chonghaejin executives accused of overloading cargo.
In a statement, a committee of ferry victims’ families demanded strict punishment of the crew.
“They say wounds heal as time goes by, but, for us, it’s like time has stopped,” the statement said. “The defendants, who should have saved the passengers first, ran out first and lived…. The defendants not only killed the passengers, they also killed the souls of the families and basic trust in our society.”
Nearly two months after the sinking, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing. Divers continue underwater searches for those believed trapped inside the sunken ship off the country’s southwestern coast.
Since the sinking, President Park Geun-hye has pushed to restructure government agencies and reshuffle top officials to try to restore public confidence damaged since the ferry sinking.
On Tuesday, Park nominated a former senior journalist to replace the outgoing prime minister, who resigned to take responsibility for the government’s handling of the sinking. Park’s first choice for the job resigned amid allegations of ethical lapses.