South Korean ferry victims' families stage hunger strike to urge passing of Sewol bill

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) Political parties remain deadlocked over the legislation of a special bill aimed at addressing issues resulting from the ferry disaster in April, prompting victims' families to stage a hunger strike on Monday to urge the immediate formation of a probe team.

The families have been conducting a sit-in at the National Assembly since Saturday to criticise lawmakers tasked with writing the "special Sewol bill," named after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 dead or missing.

They are demanding that the probe team be given the right to investigate the maritime disaster and indict those responsible under the special law.

Lawmakers have listened and the prospective legislation will involve reparation payments to victims' families and the formation of a special team to determine the causes of the accident. But partisan bickering over how much legal authority should be granted to the fact-finding team has been stalling the bill's passage, angering families.

Monday's hunger strike put pressure on lawmakers to give the team both investigative and indictment powers.

"Ever since the April 16 ferry disaster, the government, parliament, and rescue teams have all asked us to wait. We are tired of waiting. We are here to ask the National Assembly to promptly pass the Sewol bill," a father of a victim said.

Victims' families and opposition parties say the team should have the power to probe public institutions such as the Coast Guard and the Navy. The families charge that investigators should have indictment powers as well, although not all opposition lawmakers agree.

Ruling Saenuri Party legislators say the fact-finding team should be limited to determining the causes of the disaster. They say giving investigative and indictment powers to the team would overstep the principle of the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government.

Another thorny issue in the Sewol bill centres on the surviving students at Danwon High School.

Most of the victims of the ferry accident were students of the high school in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. Some conservative as well as liberal parliamentarians say the surviving students should be given special admission to colleges.

Danwon students deserve this special favour because they fell behind in schoolwork after the accident, lawmakers said.

The Saenuri Party has proposed giving financial incentives to colleges if they widen special admissions to accept students from Danwon High School.

Opposition parties have suggested ordering universities to accept Danwon students in excess of their annual acceptance quotas. Lawmakers say this would prevent Danwon students from "taking the places" of potentially more qualified students in college admissions.

The Education Ministry has declined to commit to any legal plan, partially because of public criticism that Danwon students do not deserve special treatment.

"I understand they are victims. But this does not justify their receiving special treatment in college admissions," one Internet comment read.

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