GWANGJU, South Korea — The captain of the doomed South Korean ferry that capsized in April, claiming more than 300 lives, was sentenced Tuesday to 36 years in prison for willful negligence and dereliction of duty.
However, Lee Joon-seok was acquitted of charges that he murdered 304 passengers by abandoning ship when the Sewol, dangerously overloaded, went down in choppy waters near the southern resort island of Jeju on April 16.
Others running the ferry that day received sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
With the majority of the victims students from a single high school outside Seoul, there were heart-wrenching scenes inside and outside the courtroom in this southern South Korean city.
“Sir, this is not how justice should be!” one woman cried out after the lead judge, Lim Jung-yeob, delivered the ruling. “It’s not enough even if all of them are sentenced to death,” a man shouted.
Prosecutors had asked for the death penalty — which has not been used in South Korea for almost two decades — for Lee, the 68-year-old captain, for his actions on the day the ferry capsized. They said they would appeal the verdict.
However, prosecutors needed to prove that Lee did not issue an evacuation order to the passengers. Some surviving passengers testified that the captain had ordered them to get ready to leave the ferry.
Lim noted that an evacuation simulation had shown that all the passengers could have escaped the ferry in time. He concluded that the defendants neglected their duties because they knew the passengers were waiting for instructions, they were aware how quickly the ship was listing, and they must have known that the passengers’ lives were in imminent danger.
He sentenced Lee to 36 years and the ship’s chief engineer to 30 years, handing down terms of five to 20 years to 13 other crew members convicted on lesser charges.
Lee Myong-sook, one of the lawyers representing the families of the victims, said the judges had interpreted the law too narrowly. “If the captain believed all the passengers could be saved by the coast guards, he would have stayed in the ship without bailing out,” she said.
Families of the victims gathered outside the court after the verdict to express their dismay.
One mother, Koh Young-hee, said she was deeply disappointed and furious because she had hoped that all of the defendants would be sentenced to death.
“I was a normal mother who was dreaming of seeing my daughter grow up, get married and have children so I could travel with my grandchildren,” she said.
But one part of the tragedy, which remains a raw wound in South Korea, did come to a close Tuesday.
Authorities said they were calling off the nearly seven-month-long recovery operation around the sunken vessel. A total of 295 bodies have been found. But divers had continued to search for the nine passengers who remain missing.
The government said Tuesday that it was too risky for the divers to continue their search, citing the ferry’s collapsing interior and worsening sea conditions.
Fifield reported from Tokyo.