'Real cause' of Korean ferry disaster still elusive

'Real cause' of Korean ferry disaster still elusive
Main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Kim Han-gil criticizes the ruling Saenuri Party at a demonstration in downtown Seoul on Monday. The NPAD supports empowering an inquriy panel with prosecutorial powers to investigate the April ferry accident. The Saenuri Party opposes the proposal.

Almost 15 weeks since the Sewol ferry sank in the West Sea, South Koreans still disagree as to what caused the disaster, with earlier prosecutorial and parliamentary investigations failing to produce conclusive explanations about the accident.

Lawmakers, scholars and victims' families are saying an inquiry panel should be created to unearth the "real causes" of the disaster.

On July 12, lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties began to write a special bill to set up the panel. Lawmakers also promised to pass the bill, now widely known as the "special Sewol bill," by July 16.

But as of Monday, the bill had failed to pass in the National Assembly, because of yet another partisan war over a particularly divisive clause.

The clause proposes giving members of the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers ― such as the right to ask judges for search warrants and to exercise indictment powers.

Ruling Saenuri Party legislators reject such proposals. Saenuri lawmakers say giving the panel such powers would go against criminal laws and even the Constitution.

Opposition lawmakers and families support empowering panel members with prosecutorial authority. Otherwise, they say, the panel will fail to nose out the causes of the Sewol tragedy, just like earlier investigations by prosecutors and lawmakers have done.

Public opinion is likewise divided. Critics of the clause ask why an inquiry panel should have indictment powers. This would set a dangerous legal precedent that gives overreaching authority to random people, they say. The panel could become a witch-hunt, some Saenuri officials said.

On Monday, legal scholars and relatives of the victims held a press briefing in front of the National Assembly, urging the swift passage of the bill. They supported giving the panel prosecutorial powers.

"According to the Constitution, the reason the Republic Of Korea government exists, is to provide for the well being of us, and our children," Han Sang-hie, professor of constitutional law at Konkuk University Law School, said. "I cannot help but ask what the government is doing now, with lawmakers and the president failing to tell us why the accident happened."

"Current laws specify that prosecutors have the right to ask for warrants. They do not put a limit on whom to give other prosecutorial powers," Lee Ho-joong, professor of criminal law at Sogang University, said.

About 230 legal professionals cosigned the statement.

Earlier prosecutorial and parliamentary investigations looking into the April disaster succeeded in raising more allegations than they resolved.

Prosecutors said a wide network of financial corruption within Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of Sewol, contributed to the accident, in addition to the 15 crew members of the Sewol who abandoned ship after telling passengers to stay aboard the sinking vessel on April 16.

But who was involved in the alleged corruption and for what reasons remain mysteries after Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of Chonghaejin, was found dead. With police officials and forensics experts still unsure as to the cause of Yoo's death, suspicions are rising that officials are staging a show to appease the public.

An independent parliamentary investigation aiming to determine the causes of the Sewol sinking has also failed.

Political divisions have interrupted the investigations, with lawmakers from both the opposition and ruling parties "using" the investigations according to critics.

Opposition lawmakers demanded that senior government officials "resign" while Saenuri lawmakers at times boycotted the investigations for apparently political reasons.

With 294 dead and 10 bodies still unaccounted for, the accident is considered one of the nation's worst man-made disasters. Lawmakers thus far have failed to pass promised legislation that would help prevent similar accidents in the future.


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