The ferry captain who abandoned hundreds of passengers, mostly high school students, in South Korea’s worst maritime disaster was sentenced to life imprisonment Tuesday.
An appeals court overturned the 36-year sentence a lower court had handed Lee Joon-seok, 68, in November after acquitting him of homicide, local news agency Yonhap reported.
The Gwangju High Court found him guilty of murdering 304 passengers on board the Sewol ferry, which sank off South Korea’s southwest coast in April 2014.
The Gwangju District Court had previously convicted him of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, with its records showing that Lee admitted he had not taken “appropriate measures.”
Prosecutors and victims’ families had called for a death sentence – the maximum penalty for homicide – for Lee although South Korea has not imposed capital punishment since 1997.
He was among the first to be rescued after his ship ran into trouble on April 16, 2014. An investigation quickly revealed that passengers had been told to stay below decks as the ferry listed heavily, an order found to have been a leading factor in the high death toll.
The high proportion of teenagers among the victims further fuelled public outrage over a catalogue of mismanagement by the ship’s owners that affected safety standards
Family members and their supporters have for months been campaigning for an independent investigation into the disaster, the authorities’ response to it, and related corruption allegations.
Among multiple court cases, the toughest punishment so far has been handed to Lee, but the district court had also found the Sewol’s chief engineer guilty of homicide, sentencing him to 30 years, while 13 other crew members were given sentences of between five and 20 years.
Last week, South Korean authorities confirmed plans to salvage the sunken ferry. The government estimates that the cost of the operation will reach 150 billion won (nearly $140 million) — while admitting that the figure could rise further.
Nine of the Sewol disaster’s victims have remained unaccounted for since the vessel capsized, with calls intensifying for the ferry’s recovery, not only to find those still missing but also to provide further clues about the sinking.
Earlier this month, protests following the first anniversary of the tragedy turned violent when thousands of demonstrators found themselves surrounded by even greater numbers of police.
The disaster raised questions about the implementation of safety standards in South Korea. The Sewol had been illegally redesigned and was carrying double the amount of cargo it was supposed to, something blamed on a lax regulation.