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Captain avoids death penalty in Sewol ferry trial

November 11, 2014

The captain of a South Korean ferry that sank earlier this year killing more than 300 people has avoided the death sentence. Instead, the court sentenced him to 36 years in prison.

Sewol Südkorea Unglück Fährunglück
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The court in the southern South Korean city of Gwangju on Tuesday sentenced the captain of the Sewol to 36 years in jail after finding him guilty of negligence and abandoning his passengers.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for a murder charge, but the court found that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, would have known that his actions would cause such a high number of deaths.

A court statement also said that Captain Lee had issued an evacuation order before the vessel went down, although witnesses who survived the disaster have denied this, saying they were repeatedly ordered via loudspeaker to remain on the sinking ship and didn't remember receiving an evacuation order.

The ship's chief engineer was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 30 years jail because he left two injured colleagues, escaped the ferry and did not tell rescuers about them, even though he knew they would die without help.

The other 13 crew members to face trial were also found guilty of various charges, including negligence, and received prison sentences of between five 20 years.

Anger in court

Shortly after the sentences were handed down, the head prosecutor said his team would appeal against the rulings, according to the Reuters news agency.

The sentences sparked anger and grief among many of the families of the victims who had been following the trial.

"Judge, this is not right," one woman screamed, while some of the other family members broke down in tears. "Is this how little the lives of our children were worth?" another asked. "The death sentence is not enough for the crew."

The Sewol, which was carrying mostly high-school students bound for a resort island, sank in April, killing 304 people.

Search called off

South Korean officials also announced on Tuesday that the search for the bodies still missing after the April sinking had been called off.

The bodies of 295 people have been recovered, but nearly seven months after the accident, nine are still missing.

The sinking of the Sewol, one of the worst disasters in South Korea's history, sparked a public debate over safety standards. Investigators looking into the cause of the accident found that among other things the ferry operator had overloaded the vessel.

Also, three sons and 10 aides of the former owner, Yoo Byung Eun were convicted of corporate crimes last week.

Yoo was found dead in a field in June, but the cause of death has not been determined.

pfd/se (dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP)

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