36 years' jail for captain in Korea ferry tragedy
GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA
THE captain did not go down with the ship, but neither was he guilty of murdering its 304 passengers, ruled a South Korean court yesterday.
Lee Jun Seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison for deserting his ferry, the Sewol, and its passengers - most of them high-school students on a field trip - in a fatal crisis.
The 69-year-old "abandoned his passengers, knowing that they were waiting for instructions from the crew and that if they were not evacuated, their lives would be at risk", said the presiding judge, Lim Joung Youb.
But in his ruling, which capped a five-month trial of 15 crew members of the Sewol, the judge rejected the murder charge against Lee and the death penalty that prosecutors had sought.
Instead, he convicted the captain of failing to take the required steps to save passengers in an emergency.
Judge Lim also handed down sentences of 15 to 30 years in prison for three other senior crew members: first mate Kang Won Sik, second mate Kim Young Ho and chief engineer Park Gi Ho. He sentenced 11 other crew members to five to 10 years for accidental homicide, criminal negligence and other charges.
"You call that law? That's nonsense," several relatives of the victims shouted when the ruling was announced. "Why don't you just free them so we can punish them ourselves?" a father shouted at the judge.
The trial was perhaps the most emotionally fraught case South Koreans had experienced. When the 6,825-ton Sewol sank off the south-western coast of South Korea on April 16, the ferry was carrying twice as much cargo as allowed, and much of it was poorly secured.
Most of the victims died after the crew repeatedly urged them to stay in the vessel. All the ship's 15 navigational crew members - including the captain, shipmates and engineers - fled on the first coast-guard rescue boats to arrive on the scene.
During the trial, Lee and the senior crew members tearfully apologised for their poor seamanship, but insisted they had never intended to commit murder. Their lawyers argued that prosecutors were making the crew scapegoats in the sinking, which outraged the country as no other disaster had.