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A 'disappointing' ruling

Jason Strother, Seoul
November 11, 2014

The judgment of the five-month long Sewol trial has left many of the victims' family members dissatisfied. Experts say the trial of Captain Lee Joon-seok and his crew closes only one chapter of the ferry disaster story.

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Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol wipe their tears after South Korean lawmakers voted during the plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The 68-year old captain, who was in charge on the day the Sewol ferry capsized, was spared the death penalty. But, Lee Joon-seok was handed a 36-year prison term - essentially a life sentence.

The prosecution failed to prove that Lee and the other 14 crew members that stood trial in the southern city of Gwangju intentionally tried to murder the passengers onboard the sinking ship. The three-judge panel ruled the crew were indeed "grossly negligent," but did not hold any culpability for the passengers' deaths.

The accident was one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters. There were 476 passengers onboard when the ship set sail from the port city of Incheon, bound for the resort island of Jeju off the south coast of the Korean peninsula. But on the morning of April 16, the ship suddenly capsized and only around 140 passengers made it to safety.

A handout image released by the South Korean Coast Guard on 28 April 2014, taken from cellphone video footage by a Coast Guard officer on 16 April 2014, shows a rescue boat approaching the sinking ferry Sewol (Photo: EPA/South Korea Coast)
A new investigation is expected to get underway soonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Captain Lee and a few other crew members were some of the first to be rescued from the tilting vessel.

Disappointment

The culmination of the five-month long trial was a disappointment to many of the victims' family members, who traveled from their homes in Ansan, just outside of Seoul, to attend the sentencing.

The verdict is "absolutely not understandable," says Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother was amongst the 250 high school students who did not survive the accident. "My family and I expected the death sentence for the captain and life sentences for the crew."

The other 14 crew members who stood trial received jail terms of varying lengths, but the ship's first engineer was held responsible for the deaths of two shipmates that judges say he could have rescued.

Local media reports suggest the prosecution is also dissatisfied with the court's decision and plans to appeal the verdict.

Even if prosecutors are successful in overturning the court's ruling and Captain Lee is sentenced to death by a higher court, South Korea has more or less maintained a moratorium on judicial executions since 1998.

Deeper concerns

The trial of Captain Lee Joon-seok and his crew closes only one chapter of the Sewol ferry disaster story, according to some observers.

The real problem at the core of the accident is "government incompetence," says Yang Seung-ham, a sociology professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. He notes that many South Koreans still hold that president Park Geun-hye's administration is mainly responsible for the great loss of life. That includes the failure of the country's coast guard to reach the ship's passengers in time and overall failure of "government mechanisms" in responding to the disaster, Yang says.

There is concern that the government used the trial of the Sewol's crew as a "scapegoat" to draw attention away from its own failures, says Lee Jang-hie, a law professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. South Koreans have been "very unsatisfied with the government's answers to the tragedy" and the captain has been forced to shoulder all the blame, he says.

Unanswered questions

The investigation that was launched following the disaster revealed that the Sewol ferry should have most likely never set sail that day. Authorities found that the boat was overloaded and had undergone illegal modifications, but was still deemed seaworthy. A new investigation is expected to get underway soon and families of the victims hope it will unveil the corruption and cronyism that they suspect lay behind the disaster.

Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-seok (3rd R) sits with crew members at the start of the verdict proceedings in a court room in Gwangju November 11, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Ed Jones/Pool)
The three-judge panel ruled the crew were 'grossly negligent'Image: Reuters

The South Korean government is also looking for closure and announced on Tuesday, November 11, the end of the recovery mission of the nine ferry passengers whose remains are thought to be still inside the sunken wreck.

"The government will now focus on how to bring the ship back to the surface," maritime minister Lee Joo-young said during a televised conference. "But we will discuss all the plans with the families of those who are still missing."

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