South Korean anger at crew of sunken ferry raises questions about fairness of impending trial

Less than two months after the ferry Sewol sank, court proceedings over the disaster are set to begin for 15 crew members over the disaster — four of them for homicide. The job of defending them falls almost entirely on six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom started practicing law only this year.

The defendants are surrounded by hostility in South Korea, all the way up to President Park Geun-hye, who has called the crew's actions murderous. Private lawyers have abandoned their cases. Even the family of a deceased crew member who was praised as a hero speaks of him with shame.

The anger raises questions about the fairness of the crew members' impending trial, details of which will be worked out at a June 10 court hearing in Gwangju. All surviving crew members responsible for the ship's navigation have been charged with negligence and with failing to do their duty to protect passengers in the April 16 disaster.

Authorities have recovered 288 bodies and continue to look for 16 others in the wrecked ship off South Korea's southwestern coast.

There are allegations that the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., dangerously overloaded the vessel and gave crew members inadequate emergency training, and some company officials also have been arrested. But they may be better able to defend themselves than the crew. The fugitive head of Chonghaejin, Yoo Byung-eun, is a billionaire. The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, reportedly made 2.7 million won ($2,635) a month.

And it is the crew members, not the company higher-ups, who appeared in widely televised "perp walks" in the first weeks of the disaster, when fury was at its highest.

"People say this is a public opinion trial. To put it in other words, it is a witch trial," said Kang Jung-min, a lawyer who met the captain and two crew of the Sewol while they were in custody in April. "It is possible that rulings would correspond with public sentiment, rather than judgments based on objective facts and legal principles."

Kang cited early media reports about the captain and crewmembers that rendered them as evil. For example, South Korean media reported that the captain was drying his money at the hospital while passengers were still trapped in the ship, which Kang said the captain denied.

The court will guarantee the rights of both the defendants and the victims and faithfully investigate evidence for a speedy and fair trial, the Gwangju District Court said in a statement.

Even the family of chief officer Yang Dae-hong, who died on the ship while rescuing others, said a pang of guilt has not escaped them.

In his last phone call to his wife while the ship was sinking, Yang told her where to find savings for their children's college tuition, then said he had to go save students and hung up. Survivors said the 45-year-old returned to the sinking ship after helping them escape to safety.

"People call him a hero. But he was crew on Sewol and he was responsible for taking care of the passengers. So he is a criminal," said Yang's eldest brother, Yang Dae-hwan. "If my brother is a criminal, I'm also responsible as his older brother.

"I want to spend the rest of my life keeping victims deeply in my heart," he said.

Before being arrested, Oh Yong-seok, one of the three helmsmen at the ferry, told The Associated Press that at least some crew members, including himself, left the ship because it had listed so severely that it was impossible to rescue passengers from inside the vessel. Oh said he and other crew members helped the coast guard rescue passengers from rescue boats, breaking windows with a hammer and pulling passengers out.

Indictment papers written by prosecutors do not address any efforts made by crew members after they escaped the ferry.

"If the defendants ordered an evacuation and launched the rescue rafts, doing other rescue duties properly, more passengers could have been saved," the indictment said. "Nevertheless, the defendants abandoned the ferry Sewol without taking any measures for rescue."

The captain and three other crew members are charged with homicide — a charge that could carry the death penalty, though South Korea has not executed anyone in the 21st century. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that the passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.

At the same time, prosecutors accuse their employer of providing the crew too little training. They allege that Chonghaejin Marine did not abide by the rules that required regular training of Sewol sailors for safety and maritime accidents, a claim bolstered by a former Sewol crew member. There are various requirements, but the captain must conduct emergency training for crew every 10 days.

According to Chonghaejin's budget, it spent just 541,000 won ($528) on crew training last year.

Sailor Choi Kwang-rak said he received three emergency training sessions during the three months he worked on the Sewol ferry last year. He was then transferred to another Chonghaejin ferry, Ohamana, and found out that emergency training was more frequent there.

Ko Hong-keun, chief officer of the Ohamana, said that ferry's crew gathered for two hours of training every Sunday morning before lunch and headed home. Ko declined to talk about the Sewol's evacuation drills.

Two sailors who were at the helm at the time of sinking, 25-year-old Park Han-gyeol and 55-year-old Cho Joon-ki, could face a life sentence if convicted. If nine other crew members are convicted of abandoning people that resulted in death, they could get 30 years in jail. If they are found guilty of two additional charges as well, their sentences could exceed 40 years.

Many of the indicted crew members have had difficulty finding lawyers. Only one has a private attorney. The other 14, including the captain, are sharing the only six public defenders in Gwangju city.

Attorney Yoon Young-sun and a private law firm agreed to defend the captain and the third mate, but they both quickly resigned. An email to Yoon was not returned.

Two major civic groups of lawyers cannot represent the crew members because of a potential conflict of interest: They are already helping the victims of the disaster and their families.

Most of the crew's attorneys have little experience. Three of them passed a bar exam in 2012 and began working as attorneys this year after working as judicial researchers. None of the six attorneys responded to requests for comment.

Gwangju court said the defendants can request to fire the attorneys during the trial if they feel they are not well represented.

Kang said none of the crew asked him to represent them, though he would be willing to do so. But even the lawyer who called their case a witch trial seemed to have an expectation of the outcome.

He said he would take the case "under the condition that they will take responsibility for what they did wrong."


Follow Lee on Twitter: