, GWANGJU, Jun 10 – With South Korean divers still searching for victims of April’s ferry disaster, the murder trial of 15 crew members opened Tuesday in a highly-charged atmosphere that raised concerns about a fair hearing.
The trial began in the southern city of Gwangju in a packed courtroom which included grieving relatives of some of the 292 confirmed victims of the April 16 tragedy.
Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior 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.
Wearing numbered prison uniforms, handcuffed and with their arms bound to their waists with rope, the defendants were taken to the courthouse well before the trial began.
The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Lee and the others chose to abandon the 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry while hundreds of people were still trapped inside the heavily-listing vessel before it capsized.
A handful of crew members who stayed and tried to guide passengers to safety were among those who died.
The Sewol was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip, when it sank off the southwest coast.
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 rage 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 may be unable to receive a fair trial in the Gwangju district court.
“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.
Around 250 parents of the high-school victims travelled to Gwangju to attend the trial, both inside and outside the court.
The defendants 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.
“There is enormous public interest and emotion surrounding this trial,” said Choi Jin-Young, a spokesman for the Korean Bar Association.
“The judges must avoid being swayed by the public sentiment, although that might play a part if it comes to handing down a sentence,” Choi said.
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.