GWANGJU: A South Korean court on Tuesday (Nov 11) will deliver its verdict – and possible death sentence – on the ferry captain at the centre of one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters, as officials finally ended the long search for bodies.
After five months of dramatic, often painful testimony in the murder trial of Captain Lee Jun-seok, the three-judge bench in the southern city of Gwangju must rule whether his “wilful negligence” led directly to the loss of 304 lives.
Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for Lee, 69, after branding him an unrepentant liar who abandoned his ship in the clear knowledge that hundreds of trapped passengers – most of them schoolchildren – would die.
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. Three senior crew members were also charged with homicide and face possible life sentences.
The captain and his fellow defendants, bound and handcuffed, were brought to the courthouse four hours before the 1pm (12pm, Singapore time) hearing. Lee, wearing glasses and a green prison uniform, was seen climbing a set of stairs, his close-cropped head bowed and with a close security escort.
Lee and his crew were vilified in the wake of the Apr 16 disaster and, with emotions running sky high across the country over the loss of so many young lives, some legal experts raised doubts over whether they could receive a fair trial.
PRESUMPTION OF GUILT?
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”. 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 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people on board when it capsized. Of the 304 who died, 250 were students from the same high school.
Just hours before the court ruling was expected, Maritime Minister Lee Ju-young announced the end of the near seven-month search of the sunken vessel for missing bodies. “The situation within the ship has become too difficult to continue,” Lee said, citing the collapsing interior and worsening sea conditions with the onset of winter. Two divers died in May during search efforts in an area known for rapid currents and poor underwater visibility.
With nine victims still unaccounted for, Young said he “deeply regretted” that some families would be left with no body to mourn.
The Sewol disaster 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.
Along with Lee and the three charged with murder, 11 other crew members face prison terms of between 15 and 30 years for alleged violations of maritime law. 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.