Fifteen crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry have appeared in court before hostile spectators to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers.
The crew members stood with bowed heads before three Gwangju District Court judges, while 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 could not identify herself to the judges.
Because of time constraints, only 11 of the 15 entered pleas of not guilty. The remaining four are scheduled to appear at another hearing next week.
All surviving crew members responsible for the Sewol’s navigation have been charged with negligence and failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Several defendants acknowledged some responsibility at today’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.
Captain Lee Joon-seok and three other crew members are charged with homicide – a charge that could carry the death penalty, although South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.
The captain’s lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, said the factors that caused the sinking could not be controlled by a captain who operated the ferry only six days a month as a contract worker.
The lawyer said the captain did not flee the ship, tried to correct the ferry’s balance and asked people to wear life vests, even though he was injured. He also said the coastguard had a better ability to monitor the overall situation of the ferry from helicopters and rescue boats than the captain on the bridge.
The lawyer said 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.
Prosecutors submitted nearly 2,000 pieces of evidence to the court for review.
In a statement sent to reporters by text message and read out by family representative Kim Byung-gwon before the hearing, 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.”
President Park Geun-hye has called the crew’s actions murderous, and the pervading hostility against them has raised questions about the fairness of the trial. The crew are being defended by six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom only started practising law this year.
The court said in a statement that it will guarantee the rights of the defendants and the victims.
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 south-western coast.
There are allegations that the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co, dangerously overloaded the vessel and gave crew members inadequate emergency training, and some company officials have been arrested.
There also is widespread anger and frustration with the government over what many see as an incompetent search and rescue effort. Since the sinking, Ms Park has pushed to restructure government agencies and reshuffle senior officials to try to restore public confidence.