South Korea ferry disaster captain jailed for 36 years over sinking that killed more than 300

The chief engineer was also sentenced to 30 years in prison and 13 other crew members of the were jailed for up to 20 years in prison

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The Independent Online

The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank earlier this year, killing more than 300 people, has been jailed for 36 years.

The court said that Captain Lee Joon-seok was professionally negligent and abandoned his passengers during the disaster in April, as it sentenced him on homicide and other charges.

The chief engineer got 30 years and 13 other crew members of the MV Sewol were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, Yonhap news agency and other South Korean media reported, citing Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea.

Lee has apologised for abandoning the passengers but said he did not know his action would lead to so many deaths.

The widely vilified Lee could have received a death sentence for the homicide charges. South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997, although its courts occasionally issue the punishment.

Prosecutors and the crew members have a week to appeal, according to the court.

The 15 crew members tasked with navigating the Sewol have faced scathing public criticism because they escaped the sinking ship while many of their passengers were still trapped inside. A total of 476 people were aboard the ship and only 172 were rescued. Most of the dead were teenage students travelling to a resort island on a school trip.

Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are still missing. South Korean officials said today they have ended searches for the missing because there was only a remote chance of finding more bodies, while worries have grown over the safety of divers. Two civilian divers have died after falling unconscious during searches.

"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," said Min Dong-im, 36, the wife of a missing teacher, at a televised news conference. The Sewol's sinking in April, one of the country's deadliest disasters in decades, led to widespread grief and national soul-searching. Authorities blamed overloaded cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and corruption by the ship's owners that prevented enough spending on safety, along with the crew members' behaviour.

Last Friday, South Korean politicians approved plans to disband the coastguard and transfer its responsibilities to other government agencies. The coastguard was criticised for unprofessional, slow rescue efforts. Also last week, three relatives of the ship's billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison, about four months after the tycoon was found dead after he fled the law.

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Prosecutors have accused the crew members of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship even though they knew passengers would be trapped and killed after it sank. The defence in the trial denied any collusion among the crew, saying they were confused, injured and panicked.

Many student survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and that they did not remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other flee the vessel.

Lee has said he issued an evacuation order for passengers, but he initially told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers' safety in the cold, swift waters.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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