GWANGJU, South Korea: Prosecutors on Monday demanded the death penalty for the captain of the South Korean ferry that sank in April, branding him an unrepentant liar who abandoned the more than 300 people who died in the disaster.
They also sought life sentences for three senior crew members and prison terms of between 15 to 30 years for 11 others as the trial of Captain Lee Joon-Seok and his crew wound up in the southern city of Gwangju in an emotional session that left many of the defendants in tears.
The 69-year-old Lee “escaped the ship without making any efforts to rescue passengers”, senior prosecutor Park Jae-Eok told the court.
“He made excuses and lied. He showed no repentance… and so we ask for the death sentence,” Park said.
Lee, who remained calm as the sentencing recommendation was read out, later told the court that he accepted responsibility but insisted that he never acted with the intention to cause any deaths.
The three-judge bench will deliver its verdict and sentence on November 11.
Although the death penalty is still passed in South Korea, nobody has been executed since 1997. Currently, there are some 60 people on death row.
The 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry was carrying 476 people — most of them high school students on an organised trip — when it sank off the southern coast on April 16. Only 174 people were rescued.
The disaster was blamed on a deadly combination of cargo overloading, illegal redesign and poor helmsmanship, but the most serious charges against Lee and his crew related to their response once the ship ran into trouble.
They were among the first to climb into rescue boats and were publicly vilified for abandoning the hundreds of passengers still trapped inside.
Crew members were further condemned when it emerged they had instructed the passengers to remain where they were as the vessel began to list dangerously — a decision which the prosecution said contributed to the heavy loss of life.
Lee and the three senior crew all face the capital charge of “homicide through wilful negligence”. But the prosecution said only the captain should receive the death penalty, as the burden of responsibility lay with him.
Reading from a prepared statement, Lee acknowledged that he had been paralysed by panic and failed to take “appropriate measures” that could have saved lives.
“But I swear from my heart that there was never any intention to murder,” he said.
“I deeply bow before the victims and their relatives and apologise again. I will keep reflecting on my wrongdoings and praying for the dead until I die,” he added.
The other defendants also made statements, and some of them wept as the they apologised and bowed to the victims’ families in the courtroom.
“I feel ashamed I failed to do anything to rescue passengers,” said one female crew member.
Lee has insisted that the ferry owners are the real culprits as it was their decision to consistently overload the vessel and commission an illegal redesign.
The disaster stunned South Korea and unleashed an enduring wave of public anger that led some to question whether the captain and crew could receive a fair trial.
South Korean media coverage of their arrest and arraignment was often coloured by a presumption of guilt, and before the trial even began President Park Geun-Hye publicly stated that the crew’s actions had been “tantamount to murder”.
The defendants had difficulty in securing private legal representation, with few defence lawyers willing to take on such an emotive case.
More than six months after the disaster, divers are still searching the sunken vessel for 10 victims whose bodies have yet to be recovered.
As the prosecution called for the death penalty, the relatives of those still unaccounted for narrowly voted Monday against bringing in heavy cranes to raise the Sewol.
The authorities have promised the ship will not be moved without the families’ approval.