The captain and crew members in charge of navigating the sunken ferry Sewol have denied charges of their alleged role in the deadly tragedy leaving more than 300 people dead or missing in a trial held Tuesday.
The trial of captain Lee Joon-seok and 14 other crew began at 2 p.m. at Gwangju District Court in the country's southern city of Gwangju.
The 69-year-old skipper and three crew members have been charged with murder, prosecutors said. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
The other 11 crew members have been indicted on charges of abandonment and violating a ship safety act, they added.
Prosecutors allege that the sailors left the ship as it was sinking while telling passengers, mostly high school students on a school excursion, to stay where they were inside the cabins. The sailors were among the first to be rescued by Coast Guard personnel sent to the accident site.
Relatives of those who died arrived at the court in buses to watch the court proceedings.
Tuesday’s hearing mostly involved the defendants pleading guilty or not guilty to the charges brought against them, a court official said.
At the hearing, the defendants denied their charges, saying they had no intention to flee the ship without ensuring the passengers’ safety. They said it was impossible for them to take further steps to rescue passengers as the ship had sharply tilted to one side.
The panel of three judges finished the hearing in four hours after listening to the pleas of eleven of the 15 defendants and receiving the list of evidence.
The next trial date is slated for 10 a.m. the following Tuesday. During the second hearing, four of the defendants are scheduled to enter their pleas on their charges.
The crew members are being defended by state-appointed lawyers as their previous lawyers all resigned, the official added.
The 6,825-ton Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 326 high school students, when it sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on April 16. The official death toll currently stands at 292 people, while 12 others remain missing. (Yonhap)