An appeals court has sentenced the South Korean captain of the Sewol ferry to life in prison on a murder charge, strengthening an earlier conviction.
Lee Joon-seok was at the helm when the ferry went down in April 2014 killing more than 300 people, mostly children. He had been found guilty in November of gross negligence and sentenced to 36 years, but relatives of the dead were furious he was not convicted of murder.
The appeals court gave 14 other crew members lighter sentences.
The disaster, which took place on 16th April 2014, was one of the worst maritime disasters in South Korea in decades, and triggered widespread mourning. It was blamed on a combination of illegal redesigns, the overloading of cargo, the inexperience of the crew member steering the vessel, and lax government regulations.
The judge in the appeal court was scathing in his verdict on the actions of the captain. He said abandoning the Sewol was like a doctor deserting sick and dying people in hospital. The captain’s actions, said the judge, left his charges on his ship in a state of fatal and indescribable suffering.
The decision is likely to be academic because the captain is nearly 70 and so was never likely to be freed under his previous sentence.
Prosecutors told the Gwangju court Lee deserved the death penalty. They had argued that he had abandoned his passengers, leading to the deaths of 250 high school students and “inflicted an incurable injury on their parents”, according to Yonhap news agency.
But families of the victims staged a protest outside the court, unhappy that the sentence was not even tougher.
“He should have received death penalty. Imprisonment for life? They want to give life sentence to a person so that he can peacefully die when he is old?” Jeon Myung-sun, father of Sewol ferry victim Jeon Chan-ho asked the protesters, according to AP.
As seen in the picture above, Lee had been captured on video and in photographs leaving the ship while passengers remained trapped inside. He had apologised for abandoning passengers but argued that he never intended to sacrifice their lives and had said he was “confused” during the incident.
On Tuesday (28th April) the court also gave new sentences to 14 other crew members, ranging from 18 months to 12 years in prison. They had previously received longer jail sentences of five to 30 years.
Jeon Il-ho, a judge at Gwanju High Court, was reported by Reuters as explaining that the new sentences took into account the fact they were acting on orders. He said:
We drew a distinction between the captain Lee Joon-seok who has a grave responsibility and crew members who took orders from the captain. And we considered health conditions of the crew members and actions they took in the rescue operation as well as how they boarded the ferry Sewol.
President Park Geun-hye has vowed reforms and also agreed to demands from grieving relatives to salvage the ferry, amid ongoing protests by South Koreans.
9 bodies have still not been found.