A SOUTH Korean ferry captain has been sentenced to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers when his ship sank earlier this year.
The court acquitted Lee Joon-seok of homicide, concluding there was no proof he knew his actions would cause more than 300 deaths, in one of the worst maritime disasters in South Korean history.
Victims’ relatives immediately criticised the sentences given to Lee and other crew members as too lenient, with some weeping and shouting during the court proceedings.
“Do you know how many children are dead?” one said, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives.
The Gwangju District Court also concluded that Lee had issued an evacuation order and left the ship after rescue boats arrived on the scene.
Most of the ferry passengers were teenage students taking a school trip. Many survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered via loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and did not remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other flee the vessel.
The 69-year-old captain has said he issued an evacuation order. But he told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers’ safety in the cold, swift waters.
The widely vilified captain could have received a death sentence had he been convicted on the homicide charge.
The court sentenced the ship’s chief engineer to 30 years in prison and 13 other crew members to up to 20 years in prison, the statement said.
The engineer, Park Ki-ho, was convicted of homicide because he abandoned two injured colleagues, escaped the ferry and failed to tell rescuers about them, even though he knew they would die without help, the court said.
However, it cleared two other crew members of homicide for the same reasons it acquitted the captain. Those crew got 15 and 20 years in prison, it said.
Prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal. Relatives of the victims said they will ask prosecutors to appeal, but senior prosecutor Park Jae-eok said his office has not decided whether to do so.
The 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ferry MV Sewol have faced scathing criticism because they escaped the sinking ship while many passengers were trapped. A total of 476 people were aboard; 172 were rescued during the April disaster.
Prosecutors have accused the crew of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship even though they knew that passengers would be trapped and killed after it sank. The defence in the trial denied any collusion among the crew members, saying they were confused, injured and panicked.
Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are missing. Officials said they have ended searches because there is only a remote chance of finding more bodies while worries have grown over the safety of divers. Two civilian divers have died after falling unconscious during searches. “As our loved ones remain trapped in the cold waters, this decision is unbearably painful for us. But we requested that the search operations be stopped [because of safety concerns],” Min Dong-im, 36, the wife of a missing teacher, said.
Authorities blamed overloaded cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and corruption by the ship’s owners that prevented enough spending on safety, along with the crew members’ behaviour, for the sinking.
The ship’s billionaire owner was found dead four months ago after fleeing arrest. Three of his relatives were sentenced last week to up to three years jail for corruption.
South Korea has spent months debating public safety, which critics say was largely ignored while the country rose to an Asian economic power after the 1950-3 Korean War. Last Friday, lawmakers approved plans to disband the coastguard and transfer its responsibilities.
Meanwhile, a series of smaller deadly accidents have occurred since the sinking, including the death in October of 16 people at an outdoor pop concert when a ventilation grate they were standing on collapsed.