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Ferry captain sentenced to life

Published 28/04/2015

Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol, at Gwangju High Court (AP)
Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol, at Gwangju High Court (AP)

The South Korean ferry captain responsible for last year's disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, has been given an increased sentence of life in prison 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 earlier had 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 other charges that led to his November conviction, according to a court statement.

Lee committed "homicide by wilful 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 navigation 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 Sewol when it began badly listing 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 that 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 not proof that 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 if he indeed issued an evacuation order.

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.

Court spokesman Jeon Ilho 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. There is still lingering public criticism against the government over its handling of the sinking, the country's deadliest maritime disaster in decades.

South Korea announced last week that it would salvage the ship off the country's south-west coast at an estimated cost of 91 million dollars (£59.6 million) to 137 million dollars (£89.9 million). Relatives of the victims hope the salvaging will locate the missing and help reveal more details about the sinking.

Authorities blame excessive cargo, improper storage and negligence for the sinking. Critics say higher-level officials have not been accountable.

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From Belfast Telegraph