MAY 15, 2014 — Prosecutors have now brought murder charges against the captain and three other crew members of the Sewol, the South Korean ferry that capsized last month, leaving 304 people dead or missing.They could face death sentences, but are unlikely to face execution as South Korea has a moratorium on capital punishment.
Lee Jun-seok, the captain, is among 15 crew members of the ferry Sewol arrested on various criminal charges, including accidental homicide. They are accused of fleeing their ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers who had been told to stay inside the ship.
Today prosecutors brought charges of homicide by willful negligence against Mr. Lee; two ship's mates, Kang Won-sik and Kim Young-ho; and chief engineer, Park Gi-ho.
Prosecutors say the Sewol's stability had been grossly compromised when it set sail April 15. It had loaded 2,142 tons of cargo, twice its allowed limit, and had not properly secured it. To accommodate the extra cargo, the ferry had also pumped out hundreds of tons of water from its ballast tanks, further undermining its stability.
Five officials at ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Company have been arrested on charges of overloading the ship and neglecting safety measures.
Arirang News reports that prosecutors are looking into putting more pressure on Yoo Dae-gyun, the eldest son of the de facto owner of the Sewol-ho ferry Yoo Byung-eon. They put him on their class A most wanted list on Wednesday, one day after raiding his house which means he will be arrested on the spot, once he is found. There are concerns he may attempt to flee the country, if he already hasn't. Prosecutors have summoned his father Yoo Byung-eon for questioning on Friday and they say they expect him to appear.
Yoo Byung-eon is described in Korean media as a "millionaire businessman, ex-convict and religious figure." He is a founding member of a cult that calls itself the "Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea." Reportedly a number of the Sewol crew are members of the cult and it has come under pressure as prosecutors have sought to question Mr. Yoo and his sons.
Now members of the cult have barricaded themselves inside a church retreat to protest what they call a "witch hunt" and "religious persecution."
Cho Kye-ung, a church spokesman, said that the government of President Park Geun-hye is plotting to turn Mr. Yoo's family and his church into scapegoats to cover up its blunders in rescue operations.
For its part, the government has announced that state auditors have begun a special investigation into whether the government neglected its duties.
Arirang News reports that the Board of Audit and Inspection has deployed a 50-person team to inspect the ministries and agencies responsible for the disaster response, including the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Coast Guard, as well as shipping associations related to the sunken ferry.
"Auditors will focus on whether the government's response was appropriate and if rescue operations progressed strategically," reports Arirang. "The construction, management and operational procedures of passenger ships will also be scrutinized.