GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — Fifteen crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared at an emotional court hearing Tuesday to enter pleas on charges that they were negligent and failed to save the more than 300 people who died or are missing from the disaster.
There were occasional outbursts from families of the victims, who were mostly high school students, during the hearing at Gwangju District Court. As the crew members slowly appeared before three judges, people in the audience sighed and wept. Many wore yellow ribbons in memory of those killed in the April 16 disaster. Some people swore. “Crazy brat,” a man said. The crowd erupted when one of the crew members appeared to smile, and a judge asked the defendants to show respect to the victims.
A judge told a woman who yelled at the defendants from her seat to stand up and gently asked her to be quiet. After expressing his condolences, the judge emphasized the rights of the defendants to make their own arguments.
In a statement sent to reporters via text message and read out by a representative before the hearing, a committee of ferry victims’ families demanded strict punishment of the crew.
“They say wounds heal as time goes by, but, for us, it’s like time has stopped,” the statement said. “The defendants, who should have saved the passengers first, ran out first and lived…. The defendants not only killed the passengers, they also killed the souls of the families and basic trust in our society.”
All surviving crew members responsible for the ship’s navigation have been charged with negligence and with failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Lawyers also planned to submit evidence during the hearing.
The captain and three other crew members are charged with homicide – a charge that could carry the death penalty, though South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that the passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.
President Park Geun-hye has called the crew’s actions murderous, and the pervading hostility against them has raised questions about the fairness of the trial. The crew is being defended by six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom started practicing law only this year.
The court said in a statement that it will guarantee the rights of both the defendants and the victims and faithfully investigate evidence for a speedy and fair trial.
Nearly two months after the sinking, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing. Divers continue underwater searches for those believed trapped inside the sunken ship off the country’s southwestern coast.
There are allegations that the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., dangerously overloaded the vessel and gave crew members inadequate emergency training, and some company officials also have been arrested.
There also is widespread anger and frustration with the government over what many see as an incompetent search and rescue effort. Since the sinking, President Park has pushed to restructure government agencies and reshuffle top officials to try to restore public confidence.
On Tuesday, Park nominated a former senior journalist as her new prime minister. The outgoing prime minister has resigned to take responsibility for the government’s handling of the sinking. Tuesday’s appointment comes nearly two weeks after Park’s first choice for the job resigned amid allegations of ethical lapses. She also appointed the country’s ambassador to Japan as the new spy chief, according to the presidential Blue House.
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report from Seoul.