The captain and three other crew members of the ferry that sank off South Korea last month, killing more than 280 people, were indicted Thursday on charges of manslaughter through gross negligence, a prosecutor said.
Under South Korean criminal law, Captain Lee Joon-Seok, two navigators and a chief engineer could be handed the death sentence if convicted, although no one has been executed in South Korea since 1997.
Eleven other crew members were indicted on lesser charges, including alleged negligence and abandoning passengers in need when the 6,800-ton ferry Sewol capsized and sank on April 16, according to prosecutors.
Even after being instructed by maritime safety authorities to help passengers evacuate the Sewol ferry, the crew failed to take any action and almost an hour later got on the first rescue boat, senior prosecutor Yang Jong-Jin, who is also spokesman for the prosecution, told the French news agency AFP.
Crew among first to be rescued
The 15 indicted crew members, among the first to be rescued, were arrested last month. They had taken off their uniforms and changed into civilian clothes, aware that uniformed crew members should be the last to evacuate, prosecutors were quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.
Lee initially told passengers to stay in their cabins and took about a half-hour to issue an evacuation order, but it's not known if his message was ever conveyed to passengers.
In a video taken by the coast guard, he was seen escaping the ferry in his underwear to a rescue boat while many passengers were still in the sinking ship.
Lee told reporters after his arrest last month that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers' safety in the cold, swift water.
The head of the ferry's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, and four other company employees have also been arrested. Authorities suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster.
Coastguard spokesman Ko Myung-Suk said it retrieved five bodies late Wednesday and three more Thursday. The confirmed death toll is now 284, with 20 listed as missing. Only 172 people, including 22 of the ship's 29 crew members, survived.
Most of the victims were students from a single high school near Seoul who were traveling to the southern tourist island of Jeju.
South Korean divers operate at the site where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank in the sea off Jindo, South Korea, on April 20, 2014.
Conditions for divers
Coastguard chief Kim Suk-Kyun said on Wednesday that divers engaged in the grisly and dangerous task of retrieving bodies were being seriously hampered as waterlogged partition walls inside the ship collapsed.
"As time goes by, the interior is caving in faster and faster, posing serious threats to divers' safety," he said.
One diver, Chun Kwang-Geun, said poor visibility inside the ship forced his colleagues to blindly grope through debris to find victims.
"If we stumble upon something, we grope it by hand (to determine whether it is a body)," said the 40-year-old who has been working on the scene since the day after the disaster.
"Many partition walls have collapsed, blocking our access," he said.
Another diver, Lee Sun-Hyong, 35, said the collapsing walls threatened to cut off air supply to divers who mostly use breathing systems tethered to the surface.
The sinking, one of the deadliest disasters in South Korean history, has triggered an outpouring of national grief. More than 1.8 million people have paid their respects at makeshift mourning stations across the country. The government also has been under mounting public criticism for its handling of the disaster.
Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited the families of passengers still missing. The South Korean leader pledged to severely punish those responsible for the disaster.
Some information for this report provided by AFP and AP.