* "I'm not a criminal. I don't know why this is happening,"
doomed child says on video
* Captain caught abandoning boat in his underwear as
children stayed in cabins
* "Imagine the children were yours," mourning families tell
(Adds families wait for defendants to appears outside court,
quote from a mother)
By Ju-min Park
GWANGJU, South Korea, June 10 Fifteen crew of a
South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300
people, most of them children, went on trial on Tuesday on
charges ranging from negligence to homicide, with the shout
going up of "murderer" as the captain entered the court.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three senior crew members
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.
Emotions ran high in court as 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
As the defendants were led in, someone in the packed
courtroom shouted: "That guy is the captain, isn't he?
One relative held up a sign that read: "You are not human.
You are beneath animals." An altercation broke out between
relatives and security guards who tried to take the sign away.
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast on 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
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 on two rows of benches.
The 15 have been in detention since they were charged in
A family member spoke on behalf of others at the start of
the hearing, imploring the defendants to tell the truth.
"Would you have done the same if these were your children?
Please imagine for a moment that they were your children who
died and tell the truth."
The lawyer for the captain, in an opening statement, said
his client had no power to stop the ferry company's practice of
overloading the vessel with cargo.
The lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, also said the captain had not
meant to cause the accident, and there were therefore no grounds
for the homicide charge.
"It wasn't like he had a grudge against the children so it's
difficult to accept the prosecution's argument that he wilfully
neglected the duty of rescue and escaped to save himself," Lee
told the court.
The sound of sobbing was heard throughout the courtroom as
the state presented its case and the head prosecutor's voice
broke when he recounted the last moments of some of the
"I DON'T KNOW WHY THIS IS HAPPENING"
One child was caught on video, recovered later, staring
death in the face, the prosecutor said.
"I'm not a criminal, I don't know why this is happening,"
the child was quoted as saying. "I haven't done anything that
The court suspended the hearing and set the next court
appearance for next Tuesday.
About 20 relatives stood outside the court waiting for the
defendants' bus to appear. Park Eun-hee, the mother of a girl
who died on the ferry, denounced the crew's earlier defence that
they had panicked.
"We mothers say this. The crew claimed that they had panic
disorder so they didn't know what to do or couldn't save the
passengers," she said sobbing. "But during that time, our
children were crying as they called their parents and said they
A Gwangju judge who handles media affairs, Hahn Jee-hyung,
said the defendants were unlikely to get a concerted defence in
the highly publicised case.
"They were appointed by the court, so we hope there is no
criticism of them," Hahn told reporters before the hearing.
A panel of three judges presided over the first day of the
trial, as the state called for justice to be served and the
seven defence lawyers presented their case.
The captain and one senior crew member had written to the
court pleading leniency, court documents show, but details were
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.
Police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and
subsidiaries of the investment firm held by Yoo's family but
they have yet to go on trial. The coastguard, which is set to be
broken up, is also facing investigation for suspected
negligence in the course of the rescue operation.
President Park Geun-hye, who days after the disaster said
the actions of some of the crew were tantamount to murder,
nominated a former journalist as her choice to be the new prime
minister to replace the incumbent who resigned over the
government's slow and ineffective response to the disaster.
Moon Chang-geuk was expected to take charge of overhauling
bureaucracy and reforming safety standards as pledged by Park.
A lawyer appearing for the one of the crew in hearings held
earlier behind closed doors confessed to being torn between
professional obligation and the resignation that lawyers could
not make any difference amid a nationwide witch hunt.
"It is a burden for every lawyer, because the crime is
something that can hardly be forgiven," he said in the small
coastal town of Mokpo last month.
"It's not just that one person died. There were hundreds.
All I could say to the judges is 'we will await your wise
decision'. That was it."
(Editing by Jack Kim and Nick Macfie)