South Korean prosecutors indicted on Thursday four crew members of a ferry that capsized in April killing more than 280 passengers for manslaughter, a senior prosecutor said.
The captain and three other crew members were indicted on charges of manslaughter through gross negligence, Yonhap news agency reported.
They are accused of leaving the ship as it was sinking while telling passengers, mostly high school students on a school excursion, to stay where they were.
If convicted, they could face the death sentence, according to the Supreme Court, though no one has been executed in South Korea since 1997.
The prosecution also indicted all 11 other surviving crew members of the Sewol for negligence. The crew has been under criminal investigations after they were believed to have escaped the sinking vessel before many of the passengers.
“The captain, a first officer and second officer and the chief engineer escaped before the passengers leading to grave casualties,” prosecutor Ahn Sang-don, who is leading the investigation, told a news briefing.
Captain Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their cabins and took about half an hour to issue an evacuation order but it’s not known if his message was ever conveyed to passengers. In a video taken by the coast guard, he was seen escaping the ferry in his underwear to a rescue boat while many passengers were still in the sinking ship.
Lee told reporters after his arrest last month that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers’ safety in the cold, swift water.
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn, capsized and sank on April 16 on a routine journey from the mainland port of Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and their teachers on a school trip. Only 172 people were rescued, with the remainder presumed to have drowned.
"The captain should have been in command of the navigation, but left that to a third officer, and that is gross negligence," Ahn said, adding there was enough evidence to support a charge of willful negligence on the part of the captain and three other officers.
"The charge of homicide was applied because they did not exercise their duty of aid and relief, leading to the deaths of passengers," he said, adding that some crew had confessed "they were thinking about their own lives."
Coastguard spokesman Ko Myung-Suk said on Thursday that a further five bodies were retrieved late on Wednesday, including one found floating on the surface.
The confirmed death toll now stands at 281, with 23 still missing, even as rescue divers continue to search the vessel.
The government of President Park Geun-hye has faced sharp criticism for its handling of the disaster and the rescue operation, with an outpouring of anger over suggestions that a more effective initial response could have saved many more lives.
Prosecutors are seeking the arrest of members of the family that owns the ferry operator, and may also seek the extradition of a son of the reclusive head of the family from the United States, an official said on Thursday.
South Korea’s parliament is to open an investigation into the ferry disaster, as the government counters criticism of its handling of the tragedy.
A special parliamentary session was due to open this week dedicated to confirming the cause of and responsibility for the sinking of the Sewol.
Victims’ families have been extremely critical of nearly every aspect of the government’s handling of the disaster, and had demanded a government investigation in addition to the police’s efforts.
They want explanations for perceived delays in the initial rescue effort, and are calling for those they believe responsible to be punished.
The Sewol’s regular captain, who was off duty on the day of the accident, has told prosecutors that the ferry operator - Chonghaejin Marine Co - “brushed aside” repeated warnings that the 20-year-old ship had stability issues following a renovation in 2012.
Five Chonghaejin officials, including the company’s head, have been arrested on various charges including manslaughter, negligence and breaches of vessel safety laws.
While the captain and most of the crew have been widely vilified for leaving trapped passengers to die, South Korea has recognised three part-time crew members who died saving others in the ferry capsize as national “martyrs” - lending a heroic chapter to a disaster narrative dominated by accusations of cowardice, corruption and incompetence.
All three were part-time crew members, including an engaged couple - Kim Ki-woong and Jung Hyun-seon - who could have escaped the sinking vessel but stayed behind to help trapped passengers.
The third was Park Ji-young, 21, the youngest crew member, who became a public hero after it emerged that she had given her life jacket to a passenger as she sought to guide people to safety.
Being designated martyrs entitles them to burial at a national cemetery, and their families will be eligible for financial compensation, medical assistance and other incentives.
The sinking, one of the deadliest disasters in South Korean history, has triggered an outpouring of national grief. More than 1.8 million people have paid their respects at makeshift mourning stations across the country. The government also has been under mounting public criticism for its handling of the disaster.