Ferry crew run the gauntlet of rage

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Fifteen crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry have appeared in court before hostile spectators to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers.

The crew members stood with bowed heads before three Gwangju District Court judges, while families of the victims struggled to contain their fury. Many wore yellow ribbons in memory of those killed in the April 16 accident, most of whom were students on a school trip.

The crowd erupted when one crew member appeared to smile, and a judge asked the defendants to show respect. The judges also asked the crowd to be quiet.

“Everybody should be sentenced to death,” one spectator said. One crew member wept so hard she could not identify herself to the judges.

Because of time constraints, only 11 of the 15 entered pleas of not guilty. The remaining four are to appear again next week.

All surviving crew members responsible for the Sewol’s navigation have been charged with negligence and failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Several defendants acknowledged some responsibility at yesterday’s hearing but denied that they caused the sinking, saying they had little control over the stability of the ferry, which was overloaded with cargo.

After expressing his condolences to the victims’ families, Judge Lim Joung-youb emphasised the rights of the defendants to make their own arguments.

Captain Lee Joon-seok and three other crew are charged with homicide – a charge that could carry the death penalty, although South Korea has not executed anyone since 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while aware that passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.