By Ju-min Park
GWANGJU, South Korea, June 17 (Reuters) - The surviving crew of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 people and sparking a nationwide outpouring of grief argued on Tuesday that it was up to the coastguard to rescue the passengers, not them.
Lawyers for the 15, who face charges ranging from homicide to negligence, said that once coastguard rescuers had reached the sharply listing vessel, the crew’s job was over.
“The crew share the belief that they thought the coastguard should be fully capable of the rescue because there was a distress call and they arrived and they were the ones with professional skills and equipment,” lawyer Im Ju-young told the court on the second day of the trial in Gwangju, the closest city to the scene of the disaster.
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast, sank off the southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
Crew members, including the captain, were caught on video abandoning ship while the children stayed in their cabins as told, wearing life jackets and awaiting further orders.
Im represents three crew members, including one charged with homicide. The court granted a defence request to call coastguard officials who first reached the sinking Sewol as witnesses.
The court also plans to call some of the surviving students from the Danwon High School to hear testimony after they finish their term exams, presiding Judge Lim Young-youb said.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, and three senior crew are charged with homicide, facing a maximum sentence of death. Two crew are charged with fleeing and abandoning ship that carries a maximum term of life in prison. Nine face negligence charges.
“They were in a panic and it didn’t even occur to them to go to rescue action stations,” state-appointed defence lawyer Ju Chul-soo, who represents two of the defendants, told the court.
Family members in court were more subdued on Tuesday than on the first day of the trial last week when they had shouted abuse at the captain, with one calling him a “murderer” as he entered.
The lawyers have now settled to the task of combing through more than 1,400 items of evidence submitted by the prosecution.
Judges said they would travel to Incheon, where the ferry company was based, with three of the defendants and their lawyers on June 30 to inspect the Sewol’s sister ship to gather any evidence that may be related to the case.
Last week, defence lawyer Lee Kwang-jae, who represents the captain, argued that the charge of homicide was excessive and the primary responsibility fell on the coastguard.
“I think it is reasonable that rescue activities for the passengers should be done by the coastguard that comprehensively managed and monitored the accident and handled rescue-related equipment, rather than the crew members,” he said.
Im, Lee and Ju are among the six defence lawyers appointed by the court and face the unpopular task of building a defence when the crew have already been found guilty by an angry public.
All are junior lawyers who have been recently admitted to the bar and have yet to open private practices.
They declined to comment on strategy when reached at an office they share near the court but they have consistently tried to build an argument that there was clear absence of wilful negligence.
The coastguard has been publicly criticised for its slow and ineffective response. President Park Geun-hye, in an emotional public apology, last month said she would break up the coastguard and transfer the rescue role to an agency yet to be created.
Legal experts said putting the blame solely on the coastguard was unlikely to work.
“It’s barely convincing,” said Kim Hyun, a maritime lawyer. “The crew stayed on the bridge for about 40 minutes and didn’t do anything to rescue passengers although they knew the ship was going to sink. What crew members are claiming is hard to accept.”
Authorities are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, 73, head of the family that owned the operator of the ferry, on charges of embezzlement seen as a key factor that led to compromised safety management.
Police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and subsidiaries of the investment firm held by Yoo’s family but they have yet to go on trial.
The Gwangju court next sits on June 24. (Editing by Jack Kim and Nick Macfie)