Sewol Ferry Captain Avoids Death Penalty


Families of the victims from the South Korean ferry disaster cried in anger as the ship’s captain who failed to carry out proper rescue operations avoided death penalty at Tuesday’s trial.

Ferry Sewol’s captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, was found guilty of gross negligence and received a 36-year sentence in prison, but he was acquitted of murder in the trial that spanned five months. Prosecutors had sought death penalty for Lee for homicide, but the presiding judge Lim Joung-youb convicted him of failing to save the passengers in an emergency and sentenced him to 36 years in prison, which is the maximum sentence the law in South Korea allows for that specific charge.


Although the judges agreed that Lee’s negligence played a role in the sinking of the ferry which led to more than 300 deaths, they said that he was not the only one responsible for the fatal crisis and that his negligence did not amount to an intent to kill. Investigations have revealed that a combination of illegal redesign of the ferry and cargo overloading also contributed to the disaster.

Most of the victims were teenagers aged between 16 and 17 from South Korea’s Danwon high School, who boarded the ferry for a field trip to Jeju Island.

The victims’ families who attended that trial anguished over the verdict as some of them began weeping.

“It’s not fair,” one woman told the AFP news agency. “What about the lives of our children? [Lee and his crew members] deserve worse than death.”

When the ferry capsized, Lee was reportedly one of the first to escape before abandoning his passengers. He reportedly told the passengers to stay inside the ship even as the ship began to tilt. Most of the 172 passengers who were rescued within hours after the ferry sank stayed outside against Lee’s instructions.

The death toll has reached 295 over the last seven months while nine are still missing. The last body was recovered last month, but the South Korean government announced Monday that it will cease all search operations as the weakening body of the ferry and the forthcoming winter could potentially jeopardize the lives of the rescue divers.

Aside from Lee, the ferry’s chief engineer, identified by his last name Park, was sentenced for 30 years and the 13 other crew members were given up to 20 years for abandoning the passengers and violating the maritime law.

Photo courtesy of Park Chul-hong, Yonhap/AP