Families of some of those killed in the Sewol ferry disaster last year repeated their calls Sunday for the government to repeal a mandate authorizing a probe into the disaster's causes.
The families claim the probe is likely to be controlled by officials who want to cover up the accident, as the mandate allows members of the Oceans Ministry and the Coast Guard ― two institutions blamed for botching rescue operations ― to sit on the investigation committee's decision-making board.
More than 300 of the 476 passengers aboard the Sewol drowned when the 6,825-ton passenger ferry sank in the West Sea in April 2014.
Lee Seok-tae, chief of the investigation committee, expressed hope that the government would agree to exclude its representatives from the investigation's board.
"I am optimistic that the government will repeal the mandate," Lee said Friday at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul where some of the bereaved families have been camping in protest of the government's allegedly lackluster effort to investigate the disaster.
"It is clear to anyone who read the mandate that independent inquiries into the accident are impossible," Lee said.
The mandate will take effect midnight Tuesday, if not repealed. It authorizes the Oceans Ministry to dispatch its officials to the investigation committee's strategy division. They will have the power to audit investigators' budgets and report the committee's activities to the government.
Critics, including lawmakers in the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the minor opposition Justice Party, have also denounced the downsizing of the committee's membership from 120 to 90. Of the 90 members, 43 will be nongovernment officials. Critics argue that the mandate is a culmination of the government's efforts to mute the probe.
Two previous investigations into the Sewol disaster prompted further controversy as some of the family members claimed all those responsible for the accident have not been punished. Parliamentary probes were conducted in June last year, but left more questions than answers, some families said.
Prosecutorial investigations resulted in the imprisonment of the ferry's crew members, who abandoned the sinking Sewol after telling passengers to stay in their cabins during the accident. Lee Jun-seok, the Sewol's captain, was sentenced to 36 years in November 2014.
Prosecutors imprisoned maritime regulators accused of condoning safety violations and receiving kickbacks, including a Coast Guard official who was imprisoned. The official failed to tell passengers to evacuate during the accident, even though he had access to loudspeakers on his ship, judges said.
The Sewol investigation has been a hotbed of political debate, as some opposition lawmakers have been criticised for publicizing a series of allegations against government bodies, including the presidential office last year.
Progressives, on the other hand, criticised the conservatives for depicting their move as "politically motivated," which they claimed was an attempt to cover up the fundamental cause of the tragedy.