South Korean prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for the captain of a ferry that capsized in April in the country's biggest peacetime disaster in nearly 20 years, media reports said Monday. Lee Joon-seok, 68, has been charged with negligent homicide for failing to carry out his duty, resulting in the death of more than 300 people.
The prosecutors also reportedly demanded that three crew members, who also face negligent homicide charges, should be given a life sentence. Eleven others could get a sentence of up to 30 years in prison for escaping the sinking vessel before rescuing passengers. Fifteen crew members were charged for being negligent in their duties when it sank on April 16, off the country’s southwestern coast. A three-judge panel is reportedly expected to announce its verdicts in November.
“Lee supplied the cause of the sinking of the Sewol ... he has the heaviest responsibility for the accident," Park Jae-eok, the lead prosecutor in the case, told a district court Monday, according to Reuters. "We ask that the court sentence him to death."
Lee has apologized for his actions saying that he was "confused" at the time of the accident and was unaware that abandoning the passengers would lead to so many deaths, The Associated Press, or AP reported. The majority of the victims of the disaster were high school students on a field trip to Jeju island, about 60 miles south of the Korean peninsula.
Lee has claimed that he had issued an evacuation order for the passengers, however, some of the students who survived the tragedy recalled that they were ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship. The survivors have said that they do not remember any evacuation orders being given by the crew.
"They only cared about their own lives,” one of the prosecutors said in a courtroom, according to The New York Times. Prosecutors also reportedly said that the 6,825-ton ferry, Sewol, was overloaded with cargo and much of it was poorly secured.
During the trial, the crew members reportedly said that they believed that it was the duty of the coastguard to rescue the passengers.
President Park Geun-hye's administration was also criticized for its handling of the rescue operation. A number of high-ranking officials in her cabinet were replaced after the disaster, which also led to the resignation of Prime Minister Jung Hong-won.
The bodies of about 294 people have been reportedly recovered so far, while 10 people are yet to be found.