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Sewol footage might have been doctored: inquiry panel

Surveillance footage retrieved by the Navy and Coast Guard from the ferry Sewol, which sank in 2014 claiming more than 300 lives, may have been doctored, an independent panel looking into the Sewol ferry disaster said Thursday. 

Announcing the interim results of its findings, the Special Commission on Social Disaster Investigation said that footage of Sewol that prosecutors had secured and that which the Navy claimed it had retrieved may be different.

According to allegations raised by the panel, the Navy might have secured the footage earlier than June 22, 2014, when the Navy claimed to have collected the surveillance cameras from the ferry. It might have checked the content in advance, intentionally deleted some data and staged the scene of collecting the cameras, the panel said. 

“We are of the view that the Navy and Coast Guard might have collected the surveillance cameras before June 22 and staged the scene of collecting it on the day,” an official from the commission said at a press briefing

He raised the possibility that the footage might have had some sensitive data which “could not be announced to the public” and part of it had to be edited.

“We are investigating whether the Navy and Coast Guard touched the data, but we need more time.”

There have been allegations that the footage could have been doctored, as the footage submitted to the prosecution was time-stamped until 8:46 a.m., three minutes before the capsizing of the ship was reported to the Coast Guard.

Survivors have said the surveillance cameras were in operation on the third floor until about 9:30 a.m.

The panel raised suspicion over why it took more than two months for the Coast Guard to retrieve the recorded footage -- a key piece of evidence in determining the cause of the accident.

If the footage had been restored and analyzed promptly, the cause of the sinking of the ill-fated ship could have been better identified and the rescue operation could have been more successful, according to the panel.

Families of the victims of the Sewol disaster said that the allegations hint at a strong possibility of the former Park Geun-hye administration’s intervention in fabricating the footage, and called for an investigation by the prosecution.

The 6,800-ton ferry capsized and sank in waters off the southern coast on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people, mostly high school students on a field trip. The government’s botched rescue operation drew strong criticism and the exact cause of the maritime disaster remains unclear.