South Korean ferry crew charged with manslaughter over disaster

Capt Lee Joon-seok and his three colleagues could face the death penalty if convicted, although that penalty is very unlikely to be carried out.

SEOUL // Prosecutors charged the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry and three crew members with manslaughter on Thursday, alleging that they failed to carry out their duties to protect passengers in need.

Less serious indictments were issued against the 11 other crew members responsible for navigating the vessel when it tipped over.

The disaster on April 16 left more than 300 people dead or missing.

Capt Lee Joon-seok and his three colleagues – a first mate, a second mate and the chief engineer – could face the death penalty if convicted, although that penalty is very unlikely to be carried out. There have been no executions in South Korea since 1997.

“The four were indicted on charges of manslaughter through gross negligence”, the prosecutor Yang Jong-Jin said.

The 11 others were charged with negligence and abandoning passengers in need when the ship sank.

The indictment was filed on Thursday in Gwangju District Court and a trial date will be decided in a few days, said a court official. The official said all 15 defendants are expected to be tried together.

The 15 indicted crew members were among the first people to be rescued when the Sewol began badly listing, and all were arrested last month.

Capt Lee initially told passengers to stay in their cabins and took about half an hour to issue an evacuation order but it’s not known if his message was ever conveyed to passengers.

In a video taken by the coastguard, he was seen escaping the ferry to a rescue boat while many passengers remained trapped in the sinking ship.

Capt Lee said after his arrest last month that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers’ safety in the cold, swift water.

The head of the ferry’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine Company, and four of his employees were also arrested. Authorities suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster.

About one month after the sinking, 284 bodies have been retrieved and 20 others are still listed as missing.

Only 172 people, including 22 of the ship’s 29 crew members, survived. Most of the victims were students from a single high school near Seoul who were travelling to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Published: May 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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