SEOUL - The captain of the Sewol ferry, which sank in April with the loss of 304 lives, murdered his passengers by intentionally abandoning them to their certain deaths, a South Korean appeals court heard Tuesday.
Prosecutors argued for a homicide conviction at the first in a series of hearings that will include appeals from both the prosecution and defence in the case of Captain Lee Jun-Seok and 14 of his surviving crew.
The 15 defendants were handed jail terms in November ranging from five to 36 years for their roles in the tragedy, which plunged the entire country into a lengthy period of mourning.
The 36-year sentence was imposed on Lee who was convicted of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, but acquitted of a more serious homicide charge along with two crew members.
The prosecution wants the higher court to reconsider the dismissed homicide charges, while the defendants are appealing their convictions and the severity of the sentences.
The crew neglected their duty to rescue the passengers "even though they knew they would die", one of the prosecutors told the high court in the southern city of Gwangju.
"So it was an intentional murder," the prosecutor was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.
The notion of "intention" is at the core of the appeals lodged by both sides.
Dismissing homicide charges against Lee and two crew members in November, the lower court ruled prosecutors had failed to prove the defendants abandoned the ship in the knowledge that the passengers would die as a result.
The exception was the ship's chief engineer, who was convicted of homicide for specifically failing to help two injured crew members who then drowned.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it capsized off South Korea's southern coast on April 16. Of the 304 who died, 250 were students from the same high school.
The tragedy shocked and enraged the country as it became clear that it 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.
Lee and his crew were publicly vilified - especially after video footage emerged showing them escaping the vessel while hundreds remained trapped on board.
On Tuesday, Lee's lawyer repeated the defendants' argument that they had panicked when the vessel suddenly listed to one side and abandoned ship without considering the possible consequences.
Lee's lawyer said his client had also acted in the belief that the coastguard would rescue the passengers.
Relatives of the victims were outraged by the earlier homicide acquittals, and believe Lee and senior crew members deserve the death penalty.
A verdict is expected on April 28.