Cap­tain of doomed S. Korea ferry re­ceives a life sen­tence


The South Korean ferry cap­tain re­spon­si­ble for last year’s dis­as­ter that killed more than 300 peo­ple, mostly school­child­ren, was given an in­creased sen­tence of life in pri­son Tues­day 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 crit­i­cized 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 will­ful 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 ship 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 south­west coast at an es­ti­mated cost of US$91 mil­lion to US$137 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 haven’t been accountable.


Lee Joon-seok, the cap­tain of the sunken South Korean ferry Se­wol, ar­rives for the ver­dict at Gwangju High Court in Gwangju, South Korea on Tues­day, April 28.

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