Update as of 2:39 a.m. EDT: South Korean prosecutors said Tuesday that they will appeal against the sentences handed down to the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol and other crew members. Prosecutors called the rulings "disappointing," especially the not-guilty verdict against three senior officers, including Lee Joon-seok, on homicide charges, Reuters reported.
Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the Sewol, a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing over 300 people, was sentenced to 36 years in prison for gross negligence on Tuesday at the Gwangju District Court. Lee was found not guilty of the charge of negligent homicide.
A three-judge panel handed out the verdict for failing to carry out his duty. The Sewol's sinking became the country's biggest peacetime disaster in nearly 20 years and the verdict comes after a five-month long culpable homicide trial for the 68-year-old captain. Prosecutors demanded a death penalty for Lee and life sentences for three other crew members. Lee and his crew members were among the first to abandon ship, and survivors testified that the ship’s crew urged them to stay on the ferry.
"In my opinion, the death penalty which prosecutors demanded is too much for the captain's charge. But the public opinion was too negative and the situation from the gallery in the courtroom wasn't good," Cheong Yeong-seok, a law professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University, told Reuters.
The ship’s chief engineer was sentenced to 30 years in prison while 13 other crew members received up to 20 years in jail, according to local media reports. Death sentences are reportedly rare in South Korea, which has not carried out an execution in more than 15 years.
The South Korean ferry capsized on April 16 during a routine trip to the island of Jeju. Authorities rescued 172 of the Sewol’s 476 passengers, most of them high school students on a field trip to Jeju island, about 60 miles south of the Korean peninsula.
Lee apologized for his actions saying that he was "confused" at the time of the accident, and was unaware that abandoning the passengers would lead to so many deaths. Lee also had claimed that he had issued an evacuation order for the passengers but they remained on board the vessel.
The incident also claimed the lives of two civilian divers, who died during rescue operations. South Korea halted the search for nine passengers still missing in the sinking of the Sewol ferry hours before the announcement of the verdict.