South Korean Ferry Captain Rejects Homicide Charge

The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 rejected homicide charges against him at the first day of his trial, while relatives of the victims jeered the crew of the ship.

Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, and three other crew members charged with homicide said yesterday they were shocked when the Sewol began sinking and that they couldn’t do more to save the passengers, because the ferry had already capsized too much, Hahn Jee Hyung, a court spokesman, said today in an e-mail.

The four went on trial yesterday along with 11 other crew members facing lesser charges at Gwangju district court, south of Seoul. Prosecutors accuse them of abandoning the ferry on April 16 while passengers -- most of them high school children on a field trip -- were instructed to stay in their cabins.

“The defendants acknowledged they can’t evade censure for being rescued first in an accident that produced many deaths and for their insufficient rescue efforts,” Hahn said. “But they argued they had no intention of homicide or plans to abscond.”

Only 172 of the 476 people aboard the Sewol were rescued. Divers have yet to find the remaining 12 bodies after retrieving 292 victims from the ferry that capsized off the southwestern coast of the country.

Courtroom Scuffle

Family members shouted as the trial started, with one of them calling the crew “murderers” while another described them as “lower than animals,” prompting the judge to ask for calm, Hahn said yesterday. A scuffle erupted outside the courtroom before the trial as family members tried to hit someone they believed to be associated with the ferry operator, television images showed. The trial will resume June 17, Hahn said.

Homicide is punishable by death in South Korea, although no one has been executed for the offense since 1997. A separate trial is scheduled later this month for the chairman of the ferry operator and other senior employees charged with allowing excess cargo on the ship and other safety breaches.

Authorities have also been hunting for weeks for a man they say is the de-facto owner of the ferry company, saying he neglected to improve safety and crew training. The government is offering a reward of nearly $500,000 for information leading to the arrest of Yoo Byung Eun.

Police today raided a religious retreat linked to Yoo near Seoul for the second time after South Korean President Park Geun Hye yesterday called it “absurd” that authorities still had not taken custody of him.

‘Like Murder’

Park previously said the actions of the crew were “like murder” and has vowed to overhaul the government after public criticism of what she has called a failed rescue operation. The sinking triggered a wave of national anger and grief that sent Park’s approval rating to the lowest in a year and sapped consumer confidence, threatening to slow the economy.

Park nominated Moon Chang Keuk, a former journalist, as her new prime minister yesterday after accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Chung Hong Won in April over the handling of rescue operations. Her earlier pick withdrew from consideration, after denying graft allegations raised by opposition lawmakers.

Park’s Saenuri party and the main opposition split last week’s local elections amid repercussions from the sinking in her first electoral test since taking office in February last year.

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