Skipper blamed for having passengers stay in sinking ferry

Skipper blamed for having passengers stay in sinking ferry
A vessel involved in salvage operations passes near the upturned South Korean Sewol ferry in the sea off Jindo, in this file picture taken April 17, 2014.

SEOUL - The skipper of a South Korean ferry that sank in April with the loss of more than 300 lives had ordered passengers not to leave the sinking vessel, a court heard Wednesday.

Survivors of the disaster have spoken previously of the order, which cost many passengers their lives.

But this was the first time such evidence had been given in the murder trial of captain Lee Jun-Seok and some crew members, Yonhap news agency reported.

As the vessel was rolling over, commands were repeatedly barked over loudspeakers for the passengers, most of them high school students, to stay put.

Asked by a prosecutor whether the skipper told the crew to have passengers stay where they were, a helmsman only identified by his surname Cho replied: "Yes".

The captain and crew are on trial at a court in the southern city of Gwangju for fleeing the ship, leaving passengers trapped in the sinking vessel.

Video footage released previously showed Lee making his escape in his underwear. He and some crew members were among the first to flee to safety.

The court last Saturday heard results of a test using a simulator, which showed all the victims might have been able to escape had they been told to leave the ship immediately.

Captain Lee and three senior crew members are accused of "homicide through wilful negligence" -- a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Eleven other crew are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.

As well as abandoning the ferry while hundreds were trapped inside, the crew are accused of ordering passengers to remain where they were when the ship began listing.

The captain has insisted that the ferry owners are the real culprits and that it was their decision to habitually overload the vessel which caused the disaster.

South Korea has been struggling to come to terms with the tragedy that claimed 294 confirmed deaths. Ten are still missing.

Rival political parties on Tuesday ended months of bickering and reached a compromise on a bill to establish an independent probe into the tragedy.

The National Assembly, which had been in limbo over the issue for the past five months, reopened late Tuesday to handle a backlog of hundreds of bills.

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