Sewol Ferry Captain Spared Death Penalty, Sentenced to 36 Years in Prison

Rescue boats sail around the South Korean passenger ship "Sewol" which sank, during their rescue operation in the sea off Jindo, in this April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Rescue boats sail around the South Korean passenger ship “Sewol” which sank, during their rescue operation in the sea off Jindo, in this April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Sam Kim

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) — The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank in April was sentenced to 36 years in prison for not doing enough to save passengers in the country’s worst maritime disaster in more than four decades.

Judge Lim Joung Youb said Captain Lee Joon Seok, 69, could have saved many more lives had he tried to evacuate the passengers before abandoning ship. Lee was acquitted of homicide charges that could have brought a death sentence. Most of the victims were high school students on a class trip, and only 172 of the 476 people on board survived the April 16 sinking.

“Lee should have immediately ordered an evacuation,” Judge Lim said. “His neglecting to take measures to save the passengers resulted in numerous deaths as a devastating consequence and led many families to live in misery for the rest of their lives.”

Some family members sobbed in the courtroom after the verdict was read.

“Is this justice!” Kim Hyun Dong, who lost his daughter in the sinking, shouted after the judge left, yelling curses as guards stood at each side of the courtroom. “What kind of prank is this? Bring back our kids alive!”

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty, saying Lee deliberately avoided issuing an evacuation order because he was worried the passengers would hamper his escape. The court did find the chief engineer, Park Gi Ho, guilty of homicide and sentenced him to 30 years in prison on the grounds that he didn’t help two dying crew members.

Lives Neglected

“Of course the captain deserves the death penalty” said Lee Jong Chul, 47, whose son died on the Sewol. “Whatever the crew members get won’t be enough for the lives they neglected.”

Lee has spent more than 120 days living in a tent city in central Seoul set up to pressure the government for a thorough investigation of the accident.

“What’s more important for us families is not just about punishing those that were involved in the accident,” he said. “We demand the government do an extended investigation that will reveal the truth about what really happened.”

The trial at Gwangju District Court, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) south of Seoul, has riveted a nation still reeling from the tragedy that fueled public anger at President Park Geun Hye over her handling of the disaster. Her approval rating tumbled to its lowest in more than a year in the wake of the sinking. Days after the disaster she called the actions of the crew “like murder” and in May bowed in apology during a public address to the nation.

Plea for Mercy

In addition to the captain and chief engineer, 13 other crew members were sentenced to between five and 20 years today.

The captain’s court-appointed lawyer, Lee Kwang Jae, asked the judge for “mercy” on Oct. 27. The attorney said he didn’t know what punishment would alleviate people’s anger.

The ferry was heading to the resort island of Jeju when it listed and sank off the country’s southwestern coast. While many in the crew abandoned ship, the passengers were told to stay in their cabins after the Sewol first started sinking. Parents of the high school students were initially told that all the children had survived, only to learn within hours that 250 students were missing.

Overloading and a redesign that left the vessel unstable have been blamed for contributing to the incident, which occurred in an area of ocean notorious for its strong currents.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to show the captain was guilty of criminal negligence rather than professional negligence.)

–With assistance from Heesu Lee in Seoul.

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.