South Korean ferry captain to serve life in prison

Lee Joon-seok fled ship while telling passengers to remain. Picture: AP
Lee Joon-seok fled ship while telling passengers to remain. Picture: AP
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The South Korean ferry captain responsible for last year’s disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, was given an increased sentence of life in prison yesterday by an appellate court that convicted him of homicide.

A district court in November had sentenced Lee Joon-seok to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers in need, but acquitted him of homicide. Victims’ relatives criticised the verdict at the time, saying it was too lenient. Prosecutors had earlier demanded the death penalty for Lee.

Lee’s sentence was increased because the Gwangju High Court convicted him of the homicide charges while upholding most of the other charges that led to his November conviction, ­according to a court statement.

Lee committed “homicide by willful negligence” because he fled the ship without making any evacuation order, though he, as a captain, is required by law to take some measures to rescue his passengers, the statement said.

“For whatever excuses, it’s ­difficult to forgive Lee Joon-­seok’s action that caused a big tragedy,” the court statement cited the verdict as saying.

The appellate court sentenced 14 other crew members to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 12 years, the statement said. In November, they had received sentences of five to 30 years in prison.

Lee and the 14 crew members have been the subject of fierce public anger because they were among the first people rescued from the ship on the day of the sinking in April last year. Most of the victims were teenagers who were en route to a southern ­island for a school trip. Lee has said he issued an evacuation order. But many student survivors have said that they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ferry and they did not remember any evacuation orders by crew members before they helped each other flee the ship.

In November, the Gwangju District Court supported Lee’s claim to have made an evacuation order and said there was no proof he knew his escape from the ship would cause a massive loss of life.

But the appellate court overturned that ruling, saying Lee did not take other necessary steps to save passengers that he should have taken. The court also said two of the 14 navigation crew members acknowledged that there was no evacuation order and that there were loudspeaker broadcasts asking passengers to stay inside even while Lee was fleeing the ship.

A court spokesman said prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal the verdicts. A year after the sinking, 295 bodies have been retrieved, but nine others are missing.