News / Asia

South Korea Ferry Crew Members Stand Trial; Emotions Run High

  • Evangelical Baptist Church believers sit as police officers searching for a fugitive billionaire businessman over April's ferry sinking stand in line in font of the main gate of the church in Anseong, South Korea, June 11, 2014.
  • Police officers separate a Buddhist believer from Evangelical Baptist Church believers as she denounced them near the main gate of the church in Anseong, South Korea, Wednesday, June 11, 2014.
  • Evangelical Baptist Church believers sit as police officers searching for a fugitive billionaire businessman over April's ferry sinking stand in line in font of the main gate of the church in Anseong, South Korea, June 11, 2014.
  • A family member of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol cries after a pretrial hearing for crew members of the ferry at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, June 10, 2014.
  • Family members of victims onboard sunken ferry Sewol sit in front of a building in which crew members are detained, after attending a hearing at the local court in Gwangju, South Korea, June 10, 2014.
  • Family members of victims onboard sunken ferry Sewol sit in front of a building in which crew members are detained, after attending a hearing at the local court in Gwangju, South Korea, June 10, 2014.
  • Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol ask police officers to meet with crew members of the ferry after a pretrial hearing for them at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, June 10, 2014.
  • Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol struggle with a security officer, right, while attempting to attend a pretrial hearing for the ferry's crew members at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, June 10, 2014.
  • Judges sit to preside over a hearing for crew members of the sunken ferry Sewol at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, June 10, 2014.
South Korea Ferry Crew Members Stand Trial
VOA News
The highly charged trial of 15 crew members of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, most of them children, went on trial on Tuesday on charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the shout going up of “murderer” as the captain entered the court.

Ferry Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three crew members are charged with "homicide through willful negligence" and face a possible death sentence. 

Two other crew members were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Nine others were charged with negligence, which can also carry jail terms.

Emotions ran high in court as family members appeared to have already convicted the crew who were caught on video abandoning ship, the captain in his underwear, while the children, obeying orders, waited in their cabins for further instructions.

As the defendants were led in, someone in the packed courtroom shouted: “That guy is the captain, isn't he? Murderer!”

One relative held up a sign that read: “You are not human. You are beneath animals.” An altercation broke out between relatives and security guards who tried to take the sign away.

April 16 accident

The Sewol, overloaded and traveling too fast on a turn, sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.

With divers still searching the submerged vessel for bodies and emotions sky-high less than two months after the tragedy, there are concerns over how fair the trial in the southern city of Gwangju will be.

Mourning family members packed the court in Gwangju, the closest city to the scene of the disaster, as the 15 were led in and seated on two rows of benches.

The 15 have been in detention since they were charged in May.

A family member spoke on behalf of others at the start of the hearing, imploring the defendants to tell the truth.

“Would you have done the same if these were your children? Please imagine for a moment that they were your children who died and tell the truth.”

Captain called scapegoat

The lawyer for the captain, in an opening statement, said his client had no power to stop the ferry company's practice of overloading the vessel with cargo and was being made a scapegoat by those who shared more responsibility for the disaster.

The lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, also said the captain had not meant to cause the accident, and there were therefore no grounds for the homicide charge.

"He could not take steps to rescue (passengers) because the ship tilted heavily," the lawyer said.

“It wasn't like he had a grudge against the children so it's difficult to accept the prosecution's argument that he wilfully neglected the duty of rescue and escaped to save himself,” Lee told the court.

The sound of sobbing was heard throughout the courtroom as the state presented its case and the head prosecutor's voice broke when he recounted the last moments of some of the children.
South Korea, approximate location of ferry sinkingSouth Korea, approximate location of ferry sinking
South Korea, approximate location of ferry sinking
South Korea, approximate location of ferry sinking

One child was caught on video, recovered later, staring death in the face, the prosecutor said.

“I'm not a criminal, I don't know why this is happening,” the child was quoted as saying. “I haven't done anything that bad.”

A panel of three judges presided over the first day of the trial, as the state called for justice to be served and the seven defense lawyers presented their case.

South Korea has in recent years revised its criminal law to allow defendants to opt for jury trials, but none of the 15 crew members requested it.

The captain and one senior crew member had written to the court pleading leniency, court documents show, but details were not available.

The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Lee and the others chose to abandon the 6,825-ton ferry while hundreds of people were still trapped inside the heavily listing vessel before it capsized.

A handful of crew members who stayed and tried to guide passengers to safety were among those who died.

Tragedy stuns country

The tragedy stunned South Korea, unleashing a wave of public anger as it emerged that incompetence, corruption and greed had all contributed to the scale of the disaster.

Much of that rage focused on Lee and his crew, especially after the coast guard released a video showing the captain, dressed in a sweater and underwear, scrambling to safety.

The court suspended the hearing late in the day to anger of family members who wanted the proceedings to continue.

The judges set the next court appearance for next Tuesday, seen as expediting the case when criminal trials normally sit every two weeks.

Authorities are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, head of the family that owned the operator of the doomed ferry, on charges of embezzlement seen as a key factor that led to compromised safety management.

Police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and subsidiaries of the investment firm held by Yoo's family, but they have yet to be brought to trial.

The coast guard, which is set to be broken up, is also facing investigation for suspected  negligence in the course of the rescue operation.

Fairness questioned

South Korean media coverage of the crew's arrest and arraignment was often colored by a presumption of guilt, and just weeks after the disaster President Park Geun-hye stated that the crew's actions had been "tantamount to murder,” the French news agency AFP reported

Such unequivocal statements in a heated atmosphere have fueled concerns about the trial's fairness.

"It will be a very difficult case and the court will be under a lot of pressure," said Jason Ha, a senior attorney with a leading law firm in Seoul.

The defendants reportedly had enormous difficulty in securing private legal representation, with few lawyers willing to take on the defense in such an emotive case, AFP reported.

Six public defenders were eventually appointed to the defense team.

Although the captain and three crew could, if convicted, be handed the death penalty, it is extremely unlikely it would be carried out.

A moratorium has been in place in South Korea since the last execution took place in late 1997. Currently, there are about 60 people on death row.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Informed from: USA
June 10, 2014 9:04 AM
They need to transfer the trail to another location. Depending on how the ferry turned it most likely would have been impossible to open any doors freeing the passengers. The true fault is the greed on over loading the ferry and making it "top heavy". The one that orders the cargo is the one that should be on trial. Most ferries are very hard to turn over, they are set low in the water for this reason. If the ferry was upgraded to allow more then that should not have passed inspection. Looks like the South Korean government is at fault.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs