SEOUL- With South Korean divers still searching for victims of April’s ferry disaster, the murder trial of the captain and crew was set to open Tuesday in a heated atmosphere that has raised concerns about a fair hearing.
Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three crew members are accused of “homicide through wilful negligence” — a charge that falls between first-degree murder and manslaughter, but still carries the death penalty.
Eleven other members of the crew are being tried on lesser charges of criminal negligence and violations of maritime law.
The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Captain Lee and the others chose to escape the 6,825 Sewol ferry while hundreds of passengers were still trapped inside the heavily-listing ferry before it capsized.
The Sewol was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip, when it sank off the southwest coast on April 16.
So far 292 have been confirmed dead, with 12 still unaccounted for as divers continue to search the submerged vessel for remaining bodies.
The tragedy stunned South Korea, knocking the entire country off its stride and unleashing a wave of public anger, as it emerged that incompetence, corruption and greed had all contributed to the scale of the disaster.
Much of that anger has focused on Lee and his crew, especially after the coastguard released a video showing the captain, dressed in a sweater and underwear, scrambling to safety from the sinking ferry.