Wednesday 11 December 2019

Homicide charge for ferry captain

A mother and her daughter hold candles during a rally to pay tribute to the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol (AP)
A mother and her daughter hold candles during a rally to pay tribute to the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol (AP)

Prosecutors have indicted the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry and three crew members on homicide charges, alleging that they failed to carry out their duties to protect passengers.

Lesser indictments were issued against the 11 other crew members responsible for navigating the vessel when it tipped over, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.

Captain Lee Joon-seok and the other homicide defendants - a first mate, a second mate and the chief engineer - could face the death penalty if convicted, according to the Supreme Court, although no one has been executed in South Korea since 1997.

The 11 others were indicted for alleged negligence and abandoning passengers in need when the ship sank on April 16, according to prosecutors.

The indictment was filed in Gwangju District Court and trial dates will be decided in a few days, according to a court official.

The 15 indicted crew members were among the first group of people rescued when the Sewol began listing, and all were arrested last month.

Lee initially told passengers to stay in their cabins and took about half an hour to issue an evacuation order, but it is not known if his message was conveyed to passengers. In a video taken by the coastguard, he was seen escaping the ferry in his underwear to a rescue boat while many passengers were still in the sinking ship.

Lee told reporters after his arrest last month that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers' safety in the cold, swift water.

The head of the ferry's owner, Chonghaejin Marine, and four other company employees have also been arrested. Authorities suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo might have contributed to the disaster.

About a month after the sinking, 284 bodies have been retrieved and 20 are listed as missing. Only 172 people, including 22 of the ship's 29 crew members, survived. Most of the victims were students from a high school near Seoul who were travelling to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

Underwater searches for the bodies have been hampered by strong currents and bad weather. Family members of the missing passengers are still camping out at a nearby port waiting for the news of their loved ones. One civilian diver died after falling unconscious during the search.

The sinking, one of the deadliest disasters in South Korea's modern history, has triggered an outpouring of national grief. More than 1.8 million people have paid their respects at makeshift mourning stations across the country. The government has been under mounting public criticism for its handling of the disaster.

PA Media

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