GWANGJU South Korea (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors on Monday sought the death penalty for the captain of a ferry that capsized in April, leaving 304 people, most of them school children, dead or missing, in a trial of 15 crew who abandoned ship before it sank.
Lee Joon-seok, 68, charged with homicide, should be sentenced to death for failing to carry out his duty, which in effect amounted to homicide, the prosecution told the court before resting its case in a trial that has taken place amid intense public anger.
Sentiment turned sharply hostile after evidence surfaced that the mostly teenage passengers waited in their cabins, obediently following orders, as the crew escaped.
Lee was among 15 accused of abandoning the sharply listing ferry. Four, including the captain, face homicide charges.
The rest face lesser charges, including negligence. A three-judge panel is expected to announce its verdicts in November. No formal pleas have been made but Lee has denied intent to kill.
“Lee supplied the cause of the sinking of the Sewol ... he has the heaviest responsibility for the accident,” the lead prosecutor in the case, Park Jae-eok, told the court in the south of the country.
“We ask that the court sentence him to death.”
The prosecutors sought life sentences for the other three charged with homicide and prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years for the rest.
The Sewol capsized and sank on a routine voyage on April 16, triggering an outpouring of nationwide grief and sharp criticism of the government of President Park Geun-hye for its handling of the rescue operation.
The crew on trial have said they thought it was the coast guard’s job to evacuate passengers. Video footage of their escape triggered outrage, especially after survivors testified they repeatedly told passengers to stay put.
After the prosecution rested its case, Lee apologised to the families of the victims, saying he never intended to harm anyone.
“I will repent until the day I die and ask for the victims’ families’ forgiveness,” he said. “I swear with my hand over my heart, I did not intend to kill anyone. I never even thought of such a thing.”
Most of the crew were represented by state-appointed lawyers, who argued that the defendants were mostly too badly trained to handle the disaster.
Some family members of victims who attended Monday’s hearing had called for the death penalty, but Amnesty International said death was not the answer.
The Justice Ministry said 58 people were currently on death row. The country last carried out executions in December 1997, when 23 were hanged.
“While the South Korean court system has a reputation for being fair, as do other legal systems around the world where the death penalty still exists, public opinion can still creep in,” Amnesty International’s director of research for East Asia, Roseann Rife, said.
“...The Sewol ferry accident was a great tragedy and if negligence or human error was involved, those responsible should be held to account. But the death penalty is not a solution.”
Additional reporting by James Pearson in SEOUL; writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie