Murder trial opens for South Korea ferry captain and crew

Lee Joon Seok, captain of South Korean ferry Sewol which sank at sea off Jindo, walks out of court after an investigation in Mokpo on April 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Lee Joon Seok, captain of South Korean ferry Sewol which sank at sea off Jindo, walks out of court after an investigation in Mokpo on April 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - With South Korean divers still searching for victims of April's ferry disaster, the murder trial of the captain and crew was set to open on Tuesday in a heated atmosphere that has raised concerns about a fair hearing.

Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three crew members are accused of "homicide through wilful negligence" - a charge that falls between first-degree murder and manslaughter, but still carries the death penalty.

Eleven other members of the crew are being tried on lesser charges of criminal negligence and violations of maritime law.

The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Captain Lee and the others chose to escape the 6,825 Sewol ferry while hundreds of passengers were still trapped inside the heavily-listing ferry before it capsized.

The Sewol was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip, when it sank off the southwest coast on April 16.

So far 292 have been confirmed dead, with 12 still unaccounted for as divers continue to search the submerged vessel for remaining bodies.

The tragedy stunned South Korea, knocking the entire country off its stride and 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 anger has focused on Lee and his crew, especially after the coastguard released a video showing the captain, dressed in a sweater and underwear, scrambling to safety from the sinking ferry.

South Korean media coverage of their arrest and arraignment was often coloured 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." In such a heated atmosphere, with public calls for severe punishment, there are concerns that Lee and the other defendants will be unable to receive a fair trial in the district court in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

"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.

"Public emotion is still running very high and, with the police still searching for the absconding ferry owner, the captain and crew are the target of all that anger," Ha said.

Dozens of parents of the high-school victims travelled to Gwangju on three buses to attend the trial, both inside and outside the court.

The defendants have reportedly had enormous difficulty in securing private legal representation, with few lawyers willing to take on the defence in such an emotive case.

Six public defenders have been appointed to the defence team. District court cases of this nature are usually heard by a three-judge bench.

"We don't have a jury system here, and these are professional, independent judges who hopefully should be able to ignore the clamour outside," Ha said.

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 some 60 people on death row.

Tuesday's preliminary hearing was due to begin at 0500 GMT, and was mainly expected to deal with procedural issues.

A nationwide manhunt is still underway for Yoo Byung-Eun, the fugitive patriarch of the family behind Chonghaejin Marine Co - the company that owned and operated the Sewol.

Yoo is wanted for questioning on possible charges of embezzlement and criminal negligence, as prosecutors investigate the extent to which the Sewol disaster was caused by a lack of safety standards and regulatory violations.

Prosecutors have offered a US$500,000 (S$625,035) cash reward for information leading to Yoo's arrest.

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