Judgment in murder trial of South Korea ferry captain

Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon Seok (centre) is escorted upon his arrival at the Gwangju District Court in the southwestern South Korean city of Gwangju on June 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon Seok (centre) is escorted upon his arrival at the Gwangju District Court in the southwestern South Korean city of Gwangju on June 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

GWANGJU, South Korea (AFP) - After five months of dramatic, often painful testimony, a South Korean court on Tuesday will deliver its verdict - and possible death sentence - on the ferry captain at the centre of one of the country's worst peacetime disasters.

Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for Lee Jun Seok, 69, after a trial that branded him an unrepentant liar who knowingly left some 300 passengers to die - most of them schoolchildren - when the Sewol ferry capsized in April.

Lee and three senior crew members, who all face life sentences, were charged with murder through "wilful negligence," having abandoned the sinking passenger ferry while hundreds remained trapped on board.

When the trial wrapped up late last month, Lee said he had committed a crime for which "I deserve to die" but strenuously denied that he had ever intended to sacrifice the lives of the passengers.

The Sewol disaster and the loss of so many young lives stunned the entire country and raised fraught questions about what Asia's fourth largest economy had sacrificed in its rush to development.

Grief swiftly turned to anger as it became clear that the tragedy was almost entirely man-made - the result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, an inexperienced crew and an unhealthy nexus between operators and state regulators.

Lee and his crew became the chief targets of public hostility, particularly after video footage emerged of the captain - wearing a sweater and underpants - clambering into a coastguard vessel as the ferry listed sharply to one side.

Emotions were running high throughout the country during the trial, prompting some experts to question whether Lee and his crew would get a fair hearing.

South Korean media coverage of their arrest and arraignment was often coloured by a presumption of guilt. Before the trial even began President Park Geun Hye publicly stated that the crew's actions had been "tantamount to murder".

Although the death penalty is still passed in South Korea, nobody has been executed since 1997. Currently, there are some 60 people on death row.

Along with Lee and the three others charged with murder, 11 other crew members face prison terms of between 15 and 30 years for alleged violations of maritime law.

Tuesday's verdict was expected shortly after 1:00pm (12:00pm Singapore time).

As well as abandoning the ship, Lee and his crew were condemned for instructing passengers to remain where they were as the vessel began to list dangerously - a decision which the prosecution said contributed to the heavy loss of life.

Speaking at the end of the trial last month, Lee acknowledged that he had been paralysed by panic and failed to take "appropriate measures" that could have saved lives.

"But I swear from my heart that there was never any intention to murder," he said.