Ed Jones, AFP
It was the first time the survivors – all from Dawon High School in Ansan city south of Seoul — have given evidence in the trial which began more than a month ago. Police cordons blocked public access to the district court in Ansan City, outside Seoul, as the students arrived in a red mini-bus and were escorted into the building by a tight phalanx of police officers. The actual trial is taking place in Gwangju, 265 kilometres (165 miles) south of Seoul, but the judges and lawyers decamped to the court in Ansan to hold a special two-day session for the 17 students who agreed to testify. Out of concern they might feel intimidated, the student witnesses were not required to appear in the main courtroom, and offered their testimony by video from a nearby room accompanied by a parent. Their names have not been disclosed and while their evidence was audible in the courtroom, their faces were only visible to the judges and lawyers for the defence and prosecution.
Of the 476 people on board the 6,825-tonne Sewol passenger ferry when it capsized on April 16 off the southern coast, 325 were Dawon High School students on an organised outing. Only 75 students survived. The tragedy, and in particular the loss of so many young lives, rocked South Korea with an overwhelming sense of collective shock and grief. In the days immediately after the disaster, TV stations broadcast wrenching mobile phone footage taken by one student victim of himself and his classmates laughing and joking about being in the Titanic movie as the ferry begins to list.