South Korean Supreme Court Upholds Life Sentence for Captain of Sewol Ferry

John Kim, Nov. 12, 2015, 7:58 a.m.

The nation's top court on Thursday upheld a life sentence for the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol for murdering 304 passengers aboard. Upholding a lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court said Lee Jun-seok, 70, willfully neglected his duty as a captain to evacuate passengers when the ferry sank off the southwest coast on April 16, 2014.

"While he could have easily informed the passengers of the urgent situation and reduce the number of casualties, Lee fled the ferry without doing so," Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae said. "Even after Lee escaped, he did not provide information on the situation onboard to the Coast Guard, being totally indifferent to the passengers' safety."

Lee ordered the passengers to remain where they were and failed to have them evacuate while he was among the first to be rescued, the court said. Lee's conduct of neglecting the passengers, as the captain who holds "a comprehensive and absolute authority" onboard, was practically an act of murder, the court said, referring to it as an all-out abandonment of his duty.

When the judge read out the verdict, saying what the captain did was equivalent to drowning the passengers, some of the bereaved families in the audience shed tears. "The conviction was a necessary result for those crew members who escaped from the sinking boat without paying the least effort possible to save the passengers," the bereaved families said during a press conference held in front of the Supreme Court after the ruling was handed down.

The conviction was the first of its kind to apply murder charges to a manager in charge of an accident that incurred massive casualties for not taking necessary measures. The court, however, upheld a lower court's decision that three other leading crew members, who fled the ship along with Lee, were in a position where they had to follow the captain's order and acquitted them of murder charges.

The other 14 crew members were also confirmed with prison terms ranging from 18 months to seven years. The ferry was en route to the southern resort island of Jeju from Incheon, west of Seoul, with a total of 476 passengers. Most of the 304 victims were high school students on a field trip. The bodies of nine victims remain missing.

Currently, a Chinese consortium led by China's state-run Shanghai Salvage is leading the 85.1 billion won (US$72 million) project to recover the ship. In April, an appeals court convicted Lee of murder, overruling a lower court's decision that found him guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, giving him a 36-year prison term.

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