South Korea Sewol ferry trial: Relatives angry at verdict

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Media captionThe verdict does not end the anger and pain of the relatives of those who died, as Steve Evans reports

A verdict of negligence rather than homicide on three senior officers of a South Korean ferry that sank in April killing more than 300 has angered many victims' relatives as too lenient.

"Do you know how many children are dead?" one shouted during sentencing.

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, was jailed for 36 years. The other senior officers were given 15 and 20 years.

The chief engineer was convicted of homicide - for abandoning two injured colleagues - and given 30 years.

Some relatives demanded the prosecution appeal against the verdicts on all 15 crew members on trial.

The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it went down on 16 April. A total of 295 bodies have been retrieved. Nine people remain unaccounted for but the search has now been called off. Most of the dead were school students.

'This is not right'

Prosecutors had charged Capt Lee with homicide and had called for the death penalty, but judges acquitted him of that charge.

Lee, 69, accepted in court that he would spend the rest of his days in jail.

The judges said that Lee was clearly not the only person responsible for the tragedy and they accepted that his negligence did not amount to an intent to kill.

Stephen Evans, BBC News, Gwangju

Some of the bereaved families in court had wanted the verdict to be murder as a mark of the seriousness of the negligence committed by the people in charge of the ship.

One bereaved father said after the judgement that he was 30 years old, and that if he had to wait 30 years for the guilty ship's officers to come out of jail, he would - and he would go after them.

The case has been the focus of wider anger. The man who will never face trial is the owner of the company.

The Sewol had been altered to take more cargo and in the process been made less stable. As the authorities pursued him, the chairman of the operating company, Yoo byung-eun, fled and was later found dead in a field.

The two other senior officers were similarly acquitted of homicide.

There were cries of anguish among relatives as the verdicts were announced.

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Media captionHow South Korea ferry disaster unfolded

"Judge, this is not right," one woman screamed.

"Is this how little the lives of our children were worth?" another shouted. "The death sentence is not enough for the crew."

Outside court, Park Jong-dae, a father of one of the students who died, demanded an appeal by prosecutors.

Mr Park said: "I want to say sorry to the children, and I want to promise them that we will strengthen our resolve until we reveal the truth."

One prosecutor told Reuters news agency that his team would appeal against the verdicts, which he called "disappointing", but senior prosecutor Park Jae-eok said his office had not yet made a decision.

Ko Young-hee, the mother of a teenage victim, told Associated Press: "We will do whatever it takes to make sure that the crew members who abandoned our children, escaped, ran away and thought only of their own lives, pay for their crimes."

Separate trial

The disaster was blamed on a combination of illegal redesigns, the overloading of cargo and the inexperience of the crew member steering the vessel.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A relative with the portrait of a lost loved one, in the town of Jindo
Image copyright AP
Image caption Images from the 16 April incident show Lee being rescued from the sinking ferry

Crew members did not secure cargo which moved when the vessel took a tight corner, toppling the ferry, and Lee was filmed leaving the sinking ship while many passengers remained inside.

Lee has said he committed a crime for which he deserved to die and has apologised for abandoning passengers - but he denied that he had intended to sacrifice their lives and asked not to be branded a murderer.

The chief engineer, Park Ki-ho, was found guilty of murder. He left the ferry and failed to inform rescuers of the injured colleagues, though he knew they would die without help.

The 13 other crew members were given jail sentences of up to 20 years on charges including abandonment and violating maritime law.

The disaster triggered nationwide grief followed by outrage, and led to severe criticism of safety standards and of the government's handling of the rescue operation.

A separate trial is taking place for employees of the firm that operated the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine Co.

The owner of the company and billionaire businessman Yoo Byung-eun disappeared after the disaster and was later found dead.

Sewol victims

  • 325 students aged between 16 and 17 from Danwon High School, south of Seoul, were on a school trip to the holiday island of Jeju when the ferry sank
  • Only about 70 survived - many had obeyed orders to stay put as the ferry listed
  • Several texted their family members goodbye and to tell them "I love you". One also filmed what turned out to be his last moments on his mobile phone inside the ship. The texts and footage were retrieved by parents and later broadcast on national television
  • Some of the survivors later testified that they had to float out of cabins and most of the crew members did not attempt to help them
  • At least three crew members died trying to evacuate passengers. They included an engaged couple, Jung Hyun-seon and Kim Ki-Woong, and the youngest crew member, Park Ji-young, who gave her lifejacket to a passenger; all three have been named "martyrs" by the government

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