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South Korea ferry verdict: Sewol captain sentenced to 36 years in prison

The captain who abandoned hundreds of schoolchildren as the Sewol ferry capsized and sank off the coast of South Korea in April has been sentenced to 36 years in prison, on the same day as officials called off the underwater search for those still missing. A court in the city of Gwangju found Lee Joon-seok not guilty of murder, but convicted him of gross negligence.

The overloaded Sewol capsized on 16 April while making a turn during a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. Lee abandoned the sinking ship with hundreds of people, most of them teenagers on a school excursion, on board.
Only 172 of the 476 passengers were rescued. Nearly seven months after the disaster 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are unaccounted for. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still listed as missing, 250 were pupils from the same high school.
Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for Lee, 69, after branding him a liar who abandoned the Sewol despite knowing that hundreds of trapped passengers would probably die.

The court sentenced the Sewol’s chief engineer, Park Gi-ho, to 30 years in prison for homicide for not assisting two injured fellow crew members. The remaining 13 surviving crew members were found guilty and given terms of between five and 20 years on various charges including criminal negligence and accidental homicide.
A prosecutor involved in the case said his team would appeal against the decision on all 15 crew members, calling the rulings “disappointing,” particularly the not guilty verdict against three senior officers including the captain on homicide charges. […]

The disaster, among the worst in South Korea’s modern history, exposed serious safety lapses in what quickly came to be seen as an entirely manmade disaster.
The 6,825-tonne Sewol had undergone an illegal redesign and was carrying twice as much cargo as it was designed to accommodate – flaws that did not come to light until it was too late. Observers blamed this on collusive ties between ferry operators and regulators that had also enabled the Sewol’s owner to skimp on safety features to save money.

Despite the heroics of many rescue personnel the coast guard was criticised for the slow pace of efforts to save trapped passengers. Last week South Korean MPs approved plans to disband the coast guard and transfer its responsibilities to other government agencies.

Three relatives of the ship’s billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison, about four months after he was found dead while trying to evade the authorities.

The Guardian - Justin McCurry and agencies in Gwangju – 12 November 2014

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