Victims' relatives decry South Korean ferry captain's sentence

Of the 304 people who died when the Sewol ferry capsized, 250 were schoolchildren. Capt. Lee Joon-seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A man takes pictures on Tuesday in Seoul of yellow ribbons tied with messages for missing passengers and victims who were aboard the Sewol ferry.

A South Korean ferry captain was sentenced Tuesday to 36 years in prison after a court found him guilty of negligence when his boat capsized in April, leading to the deaths of 295 people, with nine still missing.

But the Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea acquitted Capt. Lee Joon-seok of homicide, a charge prosecutors had sought to get him the death penalty. The court concluded there was no proof the captain knew his actions would lead to what became one of the worst disasters in the country's history, The Associated Press reports.

The court's decision is unlikely to satisfy many of the victims' grieving relatives. They decried the highly anticipated verdict as far too lenient, the AP reports, with some weeping and shouting during the court proceedings.

"Is this how little the lives of our children were worth?" a woman screamed in the packed courtroom, reports Reuters. "The death sentence is not enough for the crew."

As The BBC's Stephen Evans observed in the courtroom:

When the judgement was handed down, there were cries of anguish and anger from some of the bereaved families in court. They had wanted the verdict to be murder as a mark of the seriousness of the negligence committed by the people in charge of the ship ...

The case has been the focus of wider anger. The man who will never face trial is the owner of the company.

The Sewol had been altered to take more cargo and in the process been made less stable. As the authorities pursued him, the chairman of the operating company, Yoo byung-eun, fled and was later found dead in a field.

Aside from the captain, 14 additional crew members were charged for their roles in the accident. The court convicted the chief engineer of homicide for not helping two fellow shipmates. It sentenced him to 30 years in prison, making him the only one of four charged with homicide to be found guilty of it. 

The court found the other 13 crew members guilty of various charges, including negligence, and sentenced them to five to 20 years in prison, Reuters reports.

The court said prosecutors and crew members had one week to appeal. Relatives of the victims plan to ask for an appeal, but a senior prosecutor told the AP that his office hadn't decided whether to follow through on it.  

Shipping regulators and executives of the ferry operator are still on trial on charges of negligence.

Only 172 of the 476 people aboard the ship were rescued when it sank en route to the resort island of Jeju in April. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still missing, 250 were schoolchildren. 

Korean officials announced Tuesday that they were calling off the nearly seven-month search for the last nine missing people, saying conditions at the wreck have become too dangerous. 

South Korea's worst shipping accident occurred in 1970, when 320 people died after an overloaded ferry capsized on the country's southeast coast, reported The Christian Science Monitor's Steven Borowiec. April's accident was the biggest since 1993, when another ferry sank in the Yellow Sea.

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