The captain of a South Korean ferry which sank with the loss of 304 lives has apologised in court and admitted he was responsible for a “grave crime”.
Captain Lee Joon-seok denied committing murder when he appeared before a judge yesterday. The 68-year-old has been warned he could face the death penalty if convicted,
Lee has argued that the owners of the ferry Sewol are responsible for the tragedy, rather than he and his crew. On his second day in court he said that he was sorry for what happened but was not guilty of murder.
He said he deserved the death penalty for his role in the disaster. Most of the dead were schoolchildren on a holiday trip when the Sewol capsized off the south-west coast of South Korea in April.
Lee went on to say: “But I cannot give my children and grandchildren a bad name as a murderer’s relatives.”
Lee told the trial at the Gwangju District Court in the south of the country that he would continue to pray for the souls of the dead people until he dies, according to the South Korean media.
“I committed a grave sin. I’m sorry,” Lee was quoted as saying.
He added that he had no intention of killing any of his passengers. “I know I cannot get out of prison, but I must not let my children and grandchildren live being called family members of a murder,” he said.
Lee and three other crew members are facing murder charges and stand accused of failing to protect their passengers when the ferry capsized. Eleven other members of the crew are facing trial on lesser charges.
The captain and some of his colleagues received international condemnation when it emerged that they were among the first to clamber into rescue boats while other passengers were trapped inside.
Lee had earlier told the courtroom he had been in a “confused” state during the emergency.
He has also admitted that he should have been on the bridge when his ship started to list before overturning.
A separate trial is taking place involving officials who worked at the company which operated the Sewol, Chonghaejin Marine Company.
The man who owned the company, billionaire businessman Yoo Byung-eun, disappeared after the disaster and was later found dead.
Officials said the court is expected to issue its ruling on the captain and the 14 other crew members next month.
Asked by prosecutors whether he issued an evacuation order, Lee said he did so.
Survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered by loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and they did not remember any evacuation order being given.
Capt Lee has said he had ordered the ship to be abandoned but the order was not followed. The prosecutors say this contradicts what he had previously told the police. Investigators have said cargo overloading, illegal modification of the vessel and inexperienced helmsmanship was behind the disaster.