Sewol Ferry Families Outraged at Captain’s 36-Year Term

Families of the victims of the Sewol ferry sinking expressed outrage that captain Lee Joon Seok was acquitted on homicide charges that might have brought the death penalty, saying a 36-year sentence wasn’t enough given his role in the disaster that killed 304 people.

The cries of mothers filled the courtroom after Judge Lim Joung Youb read the sentence yesterday. Kim Hyun Dong, whose daughter died in the April disaster, remained in the courtroom and yelled curses long after the judge had left.

“Is this justice!” Kim said as guards in black suits looked on from each side of the courtroom in Gwangju, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) south of Seoul. “What kind of prank is this? Bring back our kids alive!”

Lim found Captain Lee, 69, guilty of negligence for failing to “take measures to save the passengers” in what became the country’s biggest maritime disaster in more than four decades. Lee and senior members of his crew were accused of abandoning ship without trying to evacuate passengers trapped in the sinking ferry.

Most of the victims in the April 16 sinking off the southwestern coast were high school students on a class trip. Only 172 of the 476 people on board survived.

“Anger is inevitably stronger because it involved the deaths of so many children,” Kwak Keum Joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University, said by phone. “The parents needed a stronger penalty for the captain so they could better explain the tragedy and its cause to themselves.”

‘Hard to Understand’

Prosecutors argued Lee deliberately avoided issuing an evacuation order because he was worried the passengers would hamper his escape. The judge disagreed, saying he was not convinced Lee had an intent to have the passengers die. The court did find the chief engineer, Park Gi Ho, guilty of homicide and sentenced him to 30 years in prison on the grounds that he didn’t help two dying crew members.

“It’s hard to understand how the chief engineer can be convicted of homicide for overlooking two injured people when the captain is acquitted of the same charge when he oversaw the entire group of passengers,” Kim Young Hoon, secretary-general of the Seoul-based Korean Bar Association that provides legal counsel for the families of victims, said.

“Of course the captain deserves the death penalty” said Lee Jong Chul, 47, whose son died on the Sewol. “Whatever the crew members get won’t be enough for the lives they neglected.”

Lee has spent more than 120 days living in a tent city in central Seoul set up to pressure the government for a thorough investigation of the accident.

Investigation Wanted

“What’s more important for us families is not just about punishing those that were involved in the accident,” he said. “We demand the government do an extended investigation that will reveal the truth about what really happened.”

The trial at Gwangju district court riveted a nation still reeling from the tragedy that fueled public anger at President Park Geun Hye over her handling of the disaster. Her approval rating tumbled to its lowest in more than a year in the wake of the sinking. Days after the disaster she called the actions of the crew “like murder” and in May bowed in apology during a public address to the nation.

The captain’s court-appointed lawyer, Lee Kwang Jae, asked the judge for “mercy” on Oct. 27. The attorney said he didn’t know what punishment would alleviate people’s anger.

The ferry was heading to the resort island of Jeju when it listed and sank off the country’s southwestern coast. While many in the crew abandoned ship, the passengers were told to stay in their cabins after the Sewol first started sinking. Parents of the high school students were initially told that all the children had survived, only to learn within hours that 250 students were missing.

Overloading and a redesign that left the vessel unstable have been blamed for contributing to the incident, which occurred in an area of ocean notorious for its strong currents.

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