South Korea calls off search for bodies from sunken Sewol ferry; 9 bodies unaccounted for

Rescue boats sail around the sunken South Korean passenger ship Sewol, in the sea off Jindo, on April 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Rescue boats sail around the sunken South Korean passenger ship Sewol, in the sea off Jindo, on April 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea on Tuesday finally called off the search for bodies from the sunken Sewol ferry, nearly seven months after the vessel capsized with the loss of more than 300 lives.

"I declare the end of the underwater search," Maritime Minister Lee Ju Young told a press briefing.

Nine bodies remain unaccounted for from the April 16 disaster.

The announcement comes ahead of a ruling on Tuesday by a South Korean court on whether the captain of the ferry should be put to death for culpable homicide in a case that triggered widespread grief and outrage.

A three-judge panel in the southern city of Gwangju will hand down verdicts and sentencing in the trial of captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, as well as 14 crew members, who face jail terms if convicted.

The overloaded Sewol capsized while making a turn during a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. The crew were among the first people to be rescued from the ship, while the mostly teenage passengers waited in their cabins.

The public outcry provoked by the tragedy led to concerns over whether the crew would be able to get a fair trial, with private sector lawyers largely shunning the defendants. Only one crew member was represented by a private lawyer.

"I think the prosecutors have been under very heavy pressure," said Cheong Yeong Seok, a law professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University.

During the five-month trial, families in the gallery occasionally made emotional outbursts. "In my opinion, the death penalty which prosecutors demanded is too much for the captain's charge. But the public opinion was too negative and the situation from the gallery in the courtroom wasn't good," said Cheong.

Death sentences are rare in South Korea, which has not carried out an execution in more than 15 years.

Kim Hyun, a maritime lawyer advising the government on payment of damages to victims in the sinking, said he believed the crew received a fair hearing.

"I think it has been a fair trial given the defendants and their lawyers have made enough arguments in favour of them, despite public criticism," he said.

Only 172 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still missing, 250 were schoolchildren.

The crew on trial have said they thought it was the coastguard's job to evacuate passengers. Video footage of their escape triggered outrage, especially after survivors testified that crew repeatedly told passengers to stay put.

Three crew members in addition to Lee face homicide charges, with prosecutors seeking life prison terms. Prosecutors sought prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years for the other crew on trial, who face lesser charges, including negligence.

There are 58 people on death row in South Korea, according to the justice ministry, but the last time the country carried out an execution was in December 1997, when 23 convicts were hanged.

Lee, the captain, has apologised to the families of the victims and said he never intended to harm anyone. Some of the crew made tearful apologies following their lawyers' closing speeches, which argued that the defendants were mostly too badly trained to handle the disaster.