Families outraged by Sewol bill

Families outraged by Sewol bill

S. KOREA - Families of those killed in the April ferry disaster continued to express outrage Friday after the main political parties in Seoul agreed to legislate a compromise version of the so-called special Sewol bill.

After weeks of partisan deadlock over important details of the much-demanded special bill, the ruling Saenuri Party and opposition lawmakers made a breakthrough in negotiations Thursday.

But families and some opposition lawmakers reacted in anger at the bill's contents only hours after the agreement, with some calling the bipartisan agreement "a stab in the back."

"It is difficult for us to hide our fury over the bipartisan deal we learned of this afternoon," said Yoo Gyoung-geun, a father of a victim and the spokesperson for the bereaved families.

The special bill aims to create an independent inquiry panel to identify why the ferry Sewol sank and why follow-up rescue operations failed to save more than 300 of the 476 passengers on board, most of whom were high school students on a field trip.

Families have demanded the panel be given prosecutorial powers. Without such powers, the families argue, investigators will not be able to uncover failures by senior government officials.

Thursday's compromise version of the Sewol bill however failed to grant the inquiry panel special legal powers.

The bill instead gave President Park Geun-hye, the government's chief executive, the final say on choosing a special prosecutor to be in charge of probing the government. The inquiry panel itself will be limited to questioning people about the accident.

"Allowing the president to have (such powers) is like killing us twice," Yoo said Thursday.

"How could we be expected to trust such an investigation?"

Rep. Park Young-sun, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy's acting chair, and the chief negotiator for the opposition, apologised to families earlier Friday.

"I am truly sorry for not being able to include all the wishes of the bereaved families into the special Sewol bill," she said.

"But the agreement was part of a package deal. From the opposition's standpoint, we thought having representatives of the families on the inquiry panel was by far the priority."

The inquiry panel will consist of 10 lawmakers, four experts appointed by the Supreme Court and the Korean Bar Association, and three experts appointed by the victims' families.

Public suspicion lingersthat senior government officials committed critical mistakes and contributed to the disaster, more than three months after the maritime accident.

Two separate investigations conducted earlier by law enforcement officials and lawmakers have added to the mistrust.

Law enforcement authorities initiated the nation's largest-ever manhunt to arrest Yoo Byung-eun, the owner of the ferry Sewol, only a few weeks after the maritime accident. Authorities were embarrassed by revelations that Yoo's body had been found in June, but only identified as Yoo in late July.

Parliamentary hearings in June quickly turned into political arguments. Opposition lawmakers continued to demand senior government officials to step down while ruling party legislators time and time again defended the beleaguered public servants.

Families vowed to keep up their fight.

"Hundreds died in an accident where a great majority of those killed could have been rescued," Yoo said. "I will not be able to face my daughter (who died in the sinking) when I meet her again, if I do not hold those responsible accountable."

The special Sewol bill will be put to a vote at a full parliamentary session Wednesday.


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