Tuesday, June 10, 2014

South Korea: Update--Trial of "Sewol" Ferry Commences on Tuesday, So Many Defendants Seems Excessive

According to Reuters, fifteen crew members of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people, mostly students, went on trial on Tuesday (June 10) on charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the shout going up of "murderer" as the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, entered the court.

The captain and three senior crew were charged with homicide, facing a maximum sentence of death. Two were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Nine were charged with negligence, which can also carry jail terms.

Family members appeared to have already convicted the crew who were caught on video abandoning ship, the captain in his underwear, while the children, obeying orders, waited in their cabins for further instructions.

The "Sewol," overloaded and traveling much too fast into a turn, sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the Mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.

Mourning family members packed the court in Gwangju, the closest city to the scene of the disaster, as the 15 were led in and seated in two rows of benches. 

COMMENT: The downside of the trial commencing so soon after the ferry capsized strikes me as not being consistent with a fair trial actually be able to occur.

The Prime Minister quickly tendered his resignation, yet the one person who had the authority to take charge, President Park Geun-hye, 62, and failed to do so, President Park herself, failed to d take charge as commander-in-chief  as she made daily visits to her gym, seemingly oblivious to the rescue effort, which was less than professional. 

A Gwangju judge who handles media affairs, Hahn Jee-hyung, said the defendants were unlikely to get a fair and concerted defense in the highly publicized case. 

A panel of three judges presided on the first day of the trial, as the state called for justice to be served and the seven defense lawyers presented their cases. 

South Korea has in recent years revised its criminal law to allow defendants to opt for jury trials, but most of the 15 crew members chose against it, largely because of pre-trial publicity.

Authorities are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, head of the family that owned the operator of the doomed ferry, on charges of embezzlement seen as a key factor that led to compromised safety management.

The absence of determined defense may mean that the crew's side of the story - whether, for instance, they were adequately trained or whether they were given strict orders to abandon ship - may never be heard in court.

One lawyer, appearing for the one of the crew in hearings held behind closed doors to decide the validity of arrest warrants, confessed to being torn between professional obligation and the resignation that lawyers could not make any difference amid a nationwide witch hunt.

The trial will be updated daily as developments unfold.