The captain of Sewol, the South Korean ferry that sank last year and killed over 300 people, was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday by an appellate court that found him guilty of homicide, besides other charges. The latest ruling from the court in the southern city of Gwangju overturns the November decision by a lower court, which had acquitted Lee Jun Seok of homicide charges, and instead charged him with negligence, sentencing him to 36 years in jail.
Tuesday’s sentence comes after relatives of the victims called the November ruling too lenient. Prosecutors had demanded death penalty for Lee, who was accused of abandoning the passengers in need, according to the Associated Press. Many of the survivors reportedly said that they heard announcements on the vessel, asking them to stay on the sinking vessel, while Lee and 14 other crew members were among the first to be rescued.
Both prosecutors and the crew members have a week to appeal the verdict.
“Captain Lee’s irresponsible activity led to the death of young students who perished without realising their dream ... and he inflicted an incurable injury on their parents,” the Straits Times reported, citing the court ruling. "His action, which seriously hurt our national image, is not forgivable for any reasons."
Sewol was carrying 476 passengers when it sank off the southwest island of Jindo on April 16. Of the 304 people who died on the ferry, most of them were schoolchildren. During the trial in the lower court, 69-year-old Lee had said that he had committed a crime “for which I should die,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Gwangju ruling also reduced the prison terms for the 14 crew members who had escaped the vessel. The crew has been sentenced to between 11 and 12 years in jail, instead of the previous ruling that ordered five to 30 years in prison, the Journal reported.
South Korean authorities who had blamed overloading of the vessel for the accident were also criticized by relatives of the victims over their handling of the disaster. Authorities have so far arrested over 140 people. They are reportedly trying to salvage the sunken ship, an operation that began after huge public outcry. It is expected to cost between $91 million and $137 million and is set to take 12 to 18 months, the AP reported.