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Ferry operator chief denies negligence

The head of the operator of the sunken ferry Sewol denied at a court hearing Friday that his negligence led to the disaster that left more than 300 people dead.

The trial of Kim Han-sik, the chief executive of Chonghaejin Marine Co., and four of the company’s executives began at 2 p.m. at Gwangju District Court in the country’s southern city of the same name.

The 72-year-old Kim and other officials were indicted on charges of professional negligence that allegedly caused the April 16 disaster and of violating the law on safe maritime navigation.

The lawyer, however, denied that Kim’s negligence led to the sinking and eventually caused the death of some 300 people, mostly high school students.

Prosecutors allege that Chonghaejin, motivated by profit, routinely overloaded the ship with passengers and cargo even though its balance was substantially compromised after a remodeling.

All but one of 15 crew members navigating the Sewol pleaded not guilty at earlier court hearings to charges linked to their alleged failure to protect passengers.

Authorities have been conducting a massive manhunt for Yoo Byung-eun, a 73-year-old fugitive billionaire who founded the predecessors of Chonghaejin, offering a 500 million won ($489,000) bounty for information leading to his capture.

Prosecutors suspect that Yoo ― a religious figure and an ex-convict ― actually owns the operator and that corruption by his family resulted in lax safety practices, such as cargo overloading, which ultimately led to the sinking.

As part of the investigation, investigators at Incheon District Prosecutors’ office in the western port city of Incheon said Friday that they arrested the husband of Yoo’s younger sister.

Oh Gab-riel, the former South Korean ambassador to Czech Republic, was put under arrest at his home in Seoul, prosecutors said.

“The prosecution is questioning Oh in connection with Yoo’s escape,” a prosecutor close to the investigation said, without giving further details.

It has been alleged that Yoo attempted to seek political asylum at a foreign embassy in Seoul through Oh. (Yonhap)