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 15-30 years for 11 others as the trial of Captain Lee Joon-Seok and his crew wound up in the southern city of Gwangju.
The 69-year-old Lee “escaped the ship without making any efforts to rescue passengers”, the prosecution team said in its sentencing recommendation to the court.
“He made excuses and lied. He showed no repentance… and so we ask for the death sentence,” the prosecution said.
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 had all faced 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.
The court is expected to deliver its verdict and sentence in early November.
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.
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 had fuelled some concerns over 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 just weeks after the disaster President Park Geun-Hye stated that the crew’s actions had been “tantamount to murder”.
The defendants had difficulty in securing private legal representation, with few lawyers willing to take on the defence in such an emotive case.