Prosecutors brought murder charges on Thursday against the captain and three other crew members of a ferry that capsized off South Korea’s southwest coast last month, leaving 304 people dead or missing.
Lee Jun-seok, the captain, was among 15 crew members of the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol who had been arrested on various criminal charges, including accidental homicide. They were accused of fleeing their ship while making little effort to save hundreds of passengers who had been told to stay inside the vessel. Their behavior has outraged many South Koreans.
On Thursday, while indicting the 15 crew members, prosecutors brought more serious murder charges against four of them: Mr. Lee; two ship’s mates, Kang Won-sik and Kim Young-ho; and the ferry’s chief engineer, Park Gi-ho.
Before he was jailed, Mr. Lee told reporters that he did give an order to evacuate the passengers. But it remained unclear whether such an order, even if issued, was delivered to passengers who were huddled inside the ship after the crew had repeatedly told them to stay inside the dangerously listing ferry.
The four were charged with murder because they were only “thinking about their own lives” and “did not exercise their duty of aid and relief” in a crisis where it was clear that the people on board would die without their help, the senior prosecutor, Ahn Sang-don, told reporters on Thursday.
If convicted on the charges, the four could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors have been investigating the causes of the ship’s sinking on April 16, which left 284 people dead and 20 missing in one of the country’s worst disasters in decades. Of the dead and missing, 250 were high school students on a school trip.
On Thursday, prosecutors said the Sewol’s ability to right itself after tilting had been grossly compromised when it set sail from Incheon, a port west of Seoul, to the southern resort island of Jeju on April 15. It had loaded 2,142 tons of cargo, twice the legal limit, and had not properly secured it.
To accommodate the excess cargo, the ferry had also pumped out hundreds of tons of water from its ballast tanks at its bottom, which further undermined its stability, they said.
The ferry lost its balance while making a sharper-than-usual turn in waters notorious for rapid currents. At the time, the least experienced of the ferry’s four mates was in charge of its navigation while the captain was in his room.
Prosecutors have arrested five officials at the ferry’s operator, Chonghaejin Marine Company, on charges of overloading the ship and neglecting safety measures.
They have also tried, in vain, to interrogate the family of Yoo Byung-eun, a church leader and retired businessman. Mr. Yoo’s two sons control Chonghaejin through a holding company. Prosecutors have tried to determine whether the family illegally used the ferry operator and other businesses to accumulate a fortune, but the family members have ignored their summons.
Hundreds of worshipers belonging to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, where Mr. Yoo remains an influential founding member, rallied on Thursday, calling prosecutors’ investigation a “witch hunt” or “religious persecution.”
They built a blockade in front of a church retreat in Anseong south of Seoul, where Mr. Yoo is believed to be holing up.
In a statement read to the news media, Cho Kye-ung, a church spokesman, said that the government of President Park Geun-hye was plotting to turn Mr. Yoo’s family and his church into scapegoats to cover up its blunders in rescue operations. In recent days, scholars and other critics of Ms. Park’s government in and outside South Korea have issued statements blaming her and her government for the disaster and its high death toll.