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Lee Jun-seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Photo: AP

South Korea ferry disaster captain jailed for 36 years but acquitted of homicide

The captain of the South Korean disaster ferry Sewol was sentenced to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers when his ship sank in April.


The captain of the South Korean disaster ferry Sewol was sentenced yesterday to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers when his ship sank in April.

But the court acquitted Lee Joon-seok of homicide, concluding there was no proof he knew his actions would cause the more than 300 deaths that shocked and outraged the country.

The verdict came on the same day searches were called off for the final nine victims and amid continuing grief and finger-pointing over one of the worst disasters in South Korean history.

Watch: South Korea ferry disaster families furious at trial verdicts

Victims' relatives immediately criticised the sentences for the captain 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 relative said, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives.

The Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea also concluded that Lee had issued an evacuation order and had left the ship after rescue boats arrived on the scene.

Most of the ferry passengers were teenage students taking a school trip, and many student survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and that they did not remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other flee the vessel.

Lee, 69, has said he issued an evacuation order. But he told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers' safety in the cold, swift waters.

He 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.

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 charges for the same reasons as the captain. Those crew members got 15 and 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal, according to the court.

The 15 crew members responsible for navigation aboard the Sewol have faced scathing public criticism for fleeing the sinking ship while many passengers were still trapped. A total of 476 people were aboard the ship and only 172 were rescued.

The ship's billionaire owner was found dead about four months ago after fleeing arrest, and three of his relatives were sentenced last week to up to three years in prison for corruption.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ferry disaster skipper is jailed for 36 years