SEOUL, South Korea – A South Korean ferry captain was sentenced Tuesday to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers when his ship sank earlier this year, but the court acquitted him of homicide, concluding there was no proof he knew his actions would cause the more than 300 deaths that shocked and outraged the country.
The highly anticipated verdict came on the same day searches were called off for the final nine victims and amid continuing grief and finger-pointing over one of the worst disasters in South Korean history. Victims’ relatives immediately criticized the sentences for Capt. Lee Joon-seok and other crew members as too lenient, with some weeping and shouting during the court proceedings.
“Do you know how many children are dead?” one relative said, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives.
The Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea also concluded that Lee had issued an evacuation order and had left the ship after rescue boats arrived on the scene, the court said in a statement.
Most of the ferry passengers were teenage students taking a school trip, and many student survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and that they didn’t remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other flee the vessel.
Lee, 69, has said he issued an evacuation order. But he told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers’ safety in the cold, swift waters.
The widely vilified captain could have received a death sentence had he been convicted on the homicide charge.
The court sentenced the ship’s chief engineer to 30 years in prison and 13 other crew members to up to 20 years in prison, the statement said.
The engineer, Park Ki-ho, was convicted of homicide because he abandoned two injured colleagues, escaped the ferry and failed to tell rescuers about them, even though he knew they would die without help, the court said.
However, it cleared two other crew members of homicide charges for the same reasons it acquitted the captain. Those crew members got 15 and 20 years in prison, it said.
Prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal, according to the court. Relatives of the victims said they will ask prosecutors to appeal the ruling, but senior prosecutor Park Jae-eok said his office hasn’t decided whether to do so.
The 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ferry Sewol have faced scathing public criticism because they escaped the sinking ship while many passengers were still trapped. A total of 476 people were aboard the ship and only 172 were rescued in the April disaster.
Prosecutors have accused the crew members of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship even though they knew that passengers would be trapped and killed after it sank. The defense in the trial has denied any collusion among the crew members, saying they were confused, injured and panicked.
Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are missing. Officials said Tuesday they’ve ended searches because there was only a remote chance of finding more bodies while worries have grown over the safety of divers. Two civilian divers have died after falling unconscious during searches.
“As our loved ones remain trapped in the cold waters, this decision is unbearably painful for us. But we requested that the search operations be stopped” because of safety concerns, Min Dong-im, 36, the wife of a missing teacher, tearfully said at a televised news conference.
The sinking has prompted widespread grief and a rare bout of soul-searching about lax safety practices in South Korea. Authorities blamed overloaded cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and corruption by the ship’s owners that prevented enough spending on safety, along with the crew members’ behavior, for the sinking.
The ship’s billionaire owner was found dead about four months ago after fleeing arrest, and three of his relatives were sentenced last week to up to three years in prison for corruption. Last Friday, South Korean lawmakers approved plans to disband the coast guard and transfer its responsibilities.
South Korea has spent months debating public safety issues that critics say were largely ignored while the country rose to an Asian economic power in the decades after the 1950-53 Korean War. But a series of smaller deadly accidents have occurred since the sinking. In mid-October, 16 people watching an outdoor pop concert fell to their deaths when a ventilation grate they were standing on collapsed.