SEOUL (Korea Herald/Asia News Network) - A court in Gwangju, South Korea on Monday held the first hearing in the trial for maritime affairs officials indicted on charges of taking bribes in return for approving the Sewol ferry operator's cabin-extension proposal despite risks of heavy pressure on the vessel.
The defendants included several officials from the Korea Coast Guard, the Korea Maritime and Port Administration and the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal, according to the Mokpo unit of the Gwangju District Court.
According to the prosecution, a commander of the East Sea Coast Guard has been under suspicion of taking gifts worth millions of won from a group of vessel owners when he was working as the chief of the Incheon Coast Guard's maritime safety division last year.
The official was found to have neglected his duty to properly supervise the ship operators belonging to the maritime association.
A director of the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal is suspected of receiving about 1 million won (S$1,230) from Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the capsized ferry.
A former official of the Korea Maritime and Port Administration allegedly winked at irregular approval of the capacity extension proposed by Chonghaejin, whose de facto owner is the fugitive Yoo Byung Eun.
During the hearing, prosecutors said that Chonghaejin Marine Co. offered kickbacks to a variety of agencies in an attempt to conceal its irregular extension and garner the certificate of ferry operation. However, some out of the attorneys for the defendants denied the charges, heralding keen court battles in the coming months.
The 20-year-old Sewol was reportedly renovated in 2012, after it was purchased from a Japanese ferry company. Two cabins were added to the back, possibly making it top-heavy. Its capacity was increased by 14 per cent and it is believed to have become 239 tonnes heavier.
Among the other defendants subject to the same trial in the Mokpo unit were Chonghaejin Marine's head Kim Han Shik and the Sewol crew members, all of whom are already being tried at other district courts.
Mr Kim reportedly notified Yoo Byung Eun of the risks of overloading the vessel with freight early this year, pointing out the ferry's weakened ability to recover left-and-right balance when tilted due to an extension in the number of cabins.
On April 15, a day before the disaster occurred, the Sewol left the port of Incheon carrying 3,606 tonnes of freight and vehicles, which is more than three times the recommended maximum cargo. Investigators have said that Chonghaejin Marine depended more and more on cargo in a bid to offset declining passenger revenue.
Earlier in the day, the National Police Agency said it was considering establishing a maritime affairs investigation bureau, after absorbing 800 officials from the Korea Coast Guard.