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.
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.
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.