Prosecutors said yesterday that the CEO and four employees of the firm that operated a doomed South Korean ferry caused the vessel's sinking by overloading it with poorly stowed cargo after a risky redesign and had neglected safety by spending less than US$2 last year on training.
The defendants countered that the cause of the April disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing was not yet clear. The five had been expected to verbally enter pleas at the preliminary hearing at Gwangju District Court, but their lawyers said they needed more time and would submit written pleas later. Another hearing is scheduled in three weeks.
Chonghaejin Marine CEO Kim Han-sik and four executives or managers faced a decidedly less hostile reception than the 15 crew members charged with negligence who were screamed at by relatives of the dead at their hearing last week.When Judge Lim Joung-youb asked if there were victims' relatives present, no hands were raised.
Prosecutors indicted the company officials for alleged professional negligence and violating a law on measures required for safe maritime navigation.
The Sewol, a car ferry purchased in Japan in 2012, was redesigned to add cabins and create an exhibition room, according to the indictment. The ship became top heavy as a result, so the Korean Register of Shipping approved the ship on the condition that it substantially reduce its cargo limit.
Chonghaejin is said to have continued to overload the ferry with cargo even though the company knew the ship's redesign made it top heavy and unstable. By routinely overloading the Sewol, Chonghaejin made an extra US$3 million in profit in the past year, the indictment said.
Han-sik, 71, did not deny that the ferry was overloaded with cargo and had been redesigned, but contended that it was questionable whether those factors led to the sinking, his lawyer, Kang Seok-won, said.
The Sewol sinking has caused widespread grief and fury in South Korea and has prompted the nation to reassess its long history of disregarding safety as it pursued economic growth.