2014: South Korea Ferry Verdict

Der Untergang der Ferry SEWOL bei Jindo, Südkorea
Source:  The Guardian, 11. Nov. 2014

South Korea ferry verdict: Sewol captain sentenced to 36 years in prison

Lee Joon-seok found not guilty of murder but is convicted of gross negligence over deaths of more than 300 people
Lee Joon-seuk, captain of the Sewol ferry, is sentenced at a court in the South Korean city of Gwangju

Ferry Verdict

Source:  Justin McCurry and agencies in Gwangju, Tuesday 11 November 2014 

The captain who abandoned hundreds of schoolchildren as the Sewol ferry capsized and sank off the coast of South Korea in April has been sentenced to 36 years in prison, on the same day as officials called off the underwater search for those still missing.

A court in the city of Gwangju found Lee Joon-seok not guilty of murder, but convicted him of gross negligence.

The overloaded Sewol capsized on 16 April while making a turn during a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. Lee abandoned the sinking ship with hundreds of people, most of them teenagers on a school excursion, on board.

Only 172 of the 476 passengers were rescued. Nearly seven months after the disaster 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are unaccounted for. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still listed as missing, 250 were pupils from the same high school.

Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the Sewol, arrives to hear the verdict. Photograph: Hyung Min-woo/AP

Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for Lee, 69, after branding him a liar who abandoned the Sewol despite knowing that hundreds of trapped passengers would probably die.

The court sentenced the Sewol’s chief engineer, Park Gi-ho, to 30 years in prison for homicide for not assisting two injured fellow crew members. The remaining 13 surviving crew members were found guilty and given terms of between five and 20 years on various charges including criminal negligence and accidental homicide.

A prosecutor involved in the case said his team would appeal against the decision on all 15 crew members, calling the rulings “disappointing,” particularly the not guilty verdict against three senior officers including the captain on homicide charges.

The captain and his fellow defendants, bound and handcuffed, were brought to the courthouse four hours before the 1pm hearing. Lee, wearing glasses and a green prison uniform, was seen under security escort climbing a set of stairs, his close-cropped head bowed.

Relatives of the victims voiced their disgust in the courtroom when the sentence was red out. One reportedly invited the judge, Lim Joung-youb, to free Lee and his crew so the families could “punish them ourselves”.

The Sewol sinking – South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in decades – stunned the entire country and raised fraught questions about what it had sacrificed in its rush to development.


Video shows the captain and some crew of the Sewol being hauled to safety as the ferry sank.

Lee and his crew became the targets of widespread public vilification, prompting legal experts to raise doubts over whether they would receive a fair trial, with emotions running high over the loss of so many young lives.

At the same time South Koreans were forced to confront the uncomfortable possibility that their country, having risen from the ashes of war, had ignored public safety as it rose to become Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Local media coverage of their arrest and arraignment was often coloured by a presumption of guilt. Before the trial even began President Park Geun-hye publicly stated that the crew’s actions had been “tantamount to murder”.

When the trial ended in October, Lee said he had committed a crime for which “I deserve to die”, but strenuously denied that his decision to abandon the ship with passengers still on board had amounted to murder. He had panicked and failed to take “appropriate measures” that could have saved lives, Lee admitted. “But I swear from my heart that there was never any intention to murder,” he said.

In the end the court said it could not accept prosecutors’ demands for a murder verdict and the death penalty. It is not clear that Lee would ever have been executed – there are 60 people on death row in South Korea but no such sentence has been carried out since 1997. Lee’s age, however, means he is likely to die in prison if he serves his full term.

“We find it hard to conclude that the defendants … were aware that all of the victims would die because of their actions and they had an intention to kill them,” the court said. “Therefore the murder charges are not accepted.”

The public rage directed at Lee intensified after the release of images showing him clambering aboard a coastguard lifeboat while his young passengers remained trapped in their cabins and other parts of the sinking ferry.

It emerged that before leaving his ship Lee had instructed the remaining passengers to stay put, even as the vessel began to list dramatically. Prosecutors argued that decision alone contributed to the heavy loss of life.

Hours before the court ruling was expected, the maritime minister, Lee Ju-young, announced the end of the near seven-month search of the sunken vessel for missing bodies.

“The situation within the ship has become too difficult to continue,” Lee said, citing the collapsing interior and worsening sea conditions with the onset of winter.

Two divers died in May during search efforts in an area known for rapid currents and poor underwater visibility.

With nine victims still unaccounted for, and warnings that they may have been washed out to sea, Lee said he “deeply regretted” that some families would be left with no body to mourn.

The minister did not elaborate on when or whether the government planned to pull the ship out of water, saying the decision would be made after discussions with experts.

The relatives of the missing issued a statement supporting 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,” said a tearful family member, reading out the statement. “But what’s most important is the safety of divers … and we want the search operation to stop,” she said, adding that the decision had been a “heartbreaking” one to make.

Min Dong-im, the wife of a missing teacher, told a televised news conference: “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.”

The disaster, among the worst in South Korea’s modern history, exposed serious safety lapses in what quickly came to be seen as an entirely manmade disaster.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol had undergone an illegal redesign and was carrying twice as much cargo as it was designed to accommodate – flaws that did not come to light until it was too late. Observers blamed this on collusive ties between ferry operators and regulators that had also enabled the Sewol’s owner to skimp on safety features to save money.

Despite the heroics of many rescue personnel the coast guard was criticised for the slow pace of efforts to save trapped passengers. Last week South Korean MPs approved plans to disband the coast guard and transfer its responsibilities to other government agencies.

Three relatives of the ship’s billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison, about four months after he was found dead while trying to evade the authorities.