South Korea ferry disaster: Court holds first trial

The prosecution has embarked on the process of proving that the captain and several crew members of the sunken ferry Sewol abandoned the vessel without any attempt to evacuate passengers.

While more than 10 victims of the April 16 tragedy are still missing, the Gwangju District Court on Tuesday held the first trial hearing on the case, for which the prosecution indicted Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-seok and three other sailors on charges of homicide due to willful negligence in mid-May.

Eleven other crewmen were also indicted, though prosecutors only lodged manslaughter charges against the four key suspects, including Lee.

The prosecution is expected to submit a variety of evidence, including video clips from the accident and the communication records between the ferry and the state-run Vessel Traffic Services Center, throughout the trial.

Many observers including lawyers shared the view that the four suspects would not admit to the charges against them.

Among the attendees of the opening hearing were the 15 accused crew members, seven attorneys and four prosecutors. Lee came under the spotlight when he was guided into the courtroom from the Gwangju District Prosecutors' Office.

Family members of some of the victims were also among the spectators. Some screamed at Lee, describing him as a "murderer" or a man "worse than a brute."

In the courtroom, judges fine-tuned the future timetable, procedures for requesting evidence and the list of key legal arguments between the defence and prosecutors.

Five charges were brought against the 69-year-old captain: homicide, attempted homicide, negligence of duties, violation of the Seamen Act, and a breach of the Rescue and Aid at Sea and on River Act.

The nation's criminal code treats "manslaughter by not taking certain actions" and "manslaughter by taking certain actions," such as stabbing a person to death, as the same.

Under the criminal code, those convicted of murder can be sentenced to between five years in prison and a life sentence or the death penalty.

Meanwhile, investigators have yet to arrest fugitive Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the Sewol ferry, despite a nationwide search over the past few weeks.

It has been three weeks since the prosecution and police placed the business irregularity-saddled figure on the wanted list.

The extraordinary investigation team, composed of about 80 prosecutors and policemen, has been under severe criticism for failing to capture Yoo, who is also a key leader of the Salvation Sect. He has allegedly engaged in a variety of misconduct during his management of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the Sewol and its sister firms.

According to some reports, Yoo and his aides have reportedly offered 10 billion won (S$12 million) to a broker who smuggles people abroad. Police, however, downplayed the possibility that he could successfully flee to a foreign country amid the tightening of inspections at port cities.