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South Korean ferry crew face hostile crowd, judges

Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol ask police officers to meet with crew members of the ferry after a pretrial hearing of them at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Hostile spectators cursing, shouting and weeping behind them, 15 crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared in court Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) -
Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol ask police officers to meet with crew members of the ferry after a pretrial hearing of them at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Hostile spectators cursing, shouting and weeping behind them, 15 crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared in court Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
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By Youkyung Lee, The Associated Press

GWANGJU, Korea, Republic Of - Hostile spectators cursing, shouting and weeping behind them, 15 crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared in court Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers.

As the crew members stood with bowed heads before three Gwangju District Court judges, families of the victims struggled to contain their fury. Many wore yellow ribbons in memory of those killed in the April 16 disaster, most of whom were students on a school trip. The crowd erupted when one crew member appeared to smile, and a judge asked the defendants to show respect. The judges also asked the crowd to be quiet.

"Everybody should be sentenced to death," one spectator said. One crew member wept so hard she couldn't identify herself to the judges.

Because of time constraints Tuesday, only 11 of the 15 entered pleas of not guilty. The remaining four are scheduled to appear at a hearing in one week.

All surviving crew members responsible for the ship's navigation have been charged with negligence and with failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Several of the defendants acknowledged some responsibility at Tuesday's hearing but denied that they caused the sinking, saying they had little control over the stability of the ferry, which was overloaded with cargo.

After expressing his condolences to the victims' families, Judge Lim Joung-youb emphasized the rights of the defendants to make their own arguments.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok and three other crew members are charged with homicide — a charge that could carry the death penalty, though South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that the passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.

The captain's lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, said the factors that caused the sinking couldn't be controlled by a captain who operated the ferry only six days a month as a contract worker. The lawyer said the captain didn't flee the ship, tried to correct the ferry's balance and asked people to wear life vests, even though he was injured. He also said the coast guard had a better ability to monitor the overall situation of the ferry from helicopters and rescue boats than the captain on the bridge.

The lawyer said that Park Han-gyeol, the third mate on duty, suffered a panic attack during the sinking and sat and wept in a corner on the bridge.

Prosecutors submitted nearly 2,000 pieces of evidence to the court for review.

In a statement sent to reporters via text message and read out by family representative Kim Byung-gwon before the hearing, a committee of ferry victims' families demanded strict punishment of the crew.

"They say wounds heal as time goes by, but, for us, it's like time has stopped," the statement said. "The defendants, who should have saved the passengers first, ran out first and lived.... The defendants not only killed the passengers, they also killed the souls of the families and basic trust in our society."

President Park Geun-hye has called the crew's actions murderous, and the pervading hostility against them has raised questions about the fairness of the trial. The crew is being defended by six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom started practicing law only this year.

The court said in a statement that it will guarantee the rights of both the defendants and the victims.

Nearly two months after the sinking, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing. Divers continue underwater searches for those believed trapped inside the sunken ship off the country's southwestern coast.

There are allegations that the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., dangerously overloaded the vessel and gave crew members inadequate emergency training, and some company officials also have been arrested.

There also is widespread anger and frustration with the government over what many see as an incompetent search and rescue effort. Since the sinking, President Park has pushed to restructure government agencies and reshuffle top officials to try to restore public confidence.

On Tuesday, Park nominated a former senior journalist to replace the outgoing prime minister, who resigned to take responsibility for the government's handling of the sinking. Park's first choice for the job resigned amid allegations of ethical lapses.

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AP writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report from Seoul.

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