GWANGJU, S Korea - The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank in April with the loss of more than 300 lives was jailed for 36 years Tuesday, but acquitted of murdering those who died in the disaster.
In a ruling that followed five months of dramatic, often painful trial testimony, a three-judge court said prosecutors, who had demanded the death penalty, failed to prove that the Sewol’s captain Lee Jun-Seok, 69, had acted with an intention to kill.
However, he was convicted of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, including abandoning his vessel while hundreds of passengers - most of them schoolchildren - remained trapped on board. Victims’ relatives who were present in the courtroom in the southern city of Gwangju, reacted furiously to the murder acquittal. “Where is the justice?” one woman shouted at the judges, while others wept openly.

“It’s not fair. What about the lives of our children? They (the defendants) deserve worse than death,” screamed another.
Three other senior crew members, who had also faced homicide charges, were sentenced to jail terms of between 15 and 30 years. “We find it hard to conclude that the defendants ... were aware that all of the victims would die because of their actions,” Judge Lim Joung-Youb said in announcing the verdict. “Therefore the murder charges are not accepted.”
However, Lim stressed that had Lee and his crew acted properly as soon as the Sewol ran into trouble, then many lives might have been saved.
“They did not honor their responsibility to protect passengers and abandoned them. As a result, countless lives were lost,” he said.
Lee and his crew were publicly vilified in the wake of the April 16 disaster and some legal experts had raised doubts over whether they would receive a fair hearing.
South Korean media coverage was often coloured by a presumption of guilt and before the trial even began President Park Geun-Hye publicly stated that the crew’s actions had been “tantamount to murder”.
As well as abandoning the ship, they were condemned for instructing passengers to remain where they were as the vessel began to list dangerously.
When the trial wrapped up late last month, Lee acknowledged that he had been paralysed by panic, but strenuously denied intending to kill anyone.
The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people on board when it capsized. Of the 304 who died, 250 were students from the same high school.
The disaster shocked and angered the entire country as it became clear that it was almost entirely man-made - the result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, an inexperienced crew and an unhealthy nexus between operators and state regulators.
Tuesday’s court ruling blasted the company that ran the Sewol, Chonghaejin Marine, saying it had failed to provide proper crew training for employees. “The company had systemic flaws and the defendants should not be held entirely responsible for the accident,” the judges said.
Eleven junior crew members received lesser jail terms ranging from five to 10 years.
Chonghaejin Marine’s CEO is currently on trial and facing a 15-year sentence on charges of negligence.
In a joint statement read outside the court, victims’ families said they were unhappy with Lee’s murder acquittal, and urged harsher penalties for the ferry managers.
“It is time to give a grave warning to those who trade away safety for money,” the statement said.
Earlier Tuesday, Maritime Minister Lee Ju-Young had announced the end of the near seven-month search of the sunken Sewol vessel.
While voicing deep regret that some families would be left with no body to mourn, Lee said the conditions had become too dangerous for the dive teams.
He did not elaborate on when or whether the government plans to pull the ship out of water, saying the decision would be made after discussions with experts.
The relatives of the nine victims still missing issued a statement backing the decision and thanking the “heroes” on the recovery teams for their efforts.
“We have endured these painful times with the hope that we will, someday, be able to hold in our arms and cry over the bodies of our loved ones,” a tearful family member said, reading out the statement.
“But what’s most important is the safety of divers,” she said.