SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Enraged parents wept and screamed as a judge sentenced a South Korean ferry captain to 36 years in prison Tuesday for negligence and abandoning passengers when his ship sank earlier this year, killing more than 300 people, mostly high school students.
The highly anticipated verdict came on the same day officials called off searches for the final nine victims and reflects the continuing grief and finger-pointing over one of the worst disasters in South Korean history. Victims' relatives immediately criticized the sentences for Capt. Lee Joon-seok and 14 other crew members as too lenient. Lee was acquitted of a homicide charge, which could have carried a death sentence, because the court said there wasn't proof that he knew his actions would cause such a massive loss of life.
"Do you know how many children are dead?" one relative shouted out during the sentencing, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives. "This isn't right," another screamed.
The intense anger points to the lack of closure many here feel over the sinking. The tragedy shocked a country that had grown used to thinking of itself as an ultra-modern economic, diplomatic and cultural powerhouse — a country that had left behind a string of deadly, high-profile accidents blamed on failures of infrastructure and regulation as it rose from poverty, war and dictatorship.
More than half-a-year after the ferry sank, the country still grapples with recriminations over claims that authorities' incompetence during rescue efforts, along with the greed, corruption and lack of interest in safety of government regulators and the ship's owners and operators, doomed the victims.
Most of the ferry passengers were teenagers taking a school trip to a southern island, and many student survivors have said they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and that they didn't remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other flee the vessel.
Lee has said he issued an evacuation order. But he 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.
The Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea concluded in its verdict that Lee had issued an evacuation order and that he left the ship after rescue boats arrived on the scene.
An official from the Justice Ministry, who requested anonymity because of office rules, said Lee, 69, will technically be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his prison sentence.
The court sentenced the ship's chief engineer to 30 years in prison, and 13 other crew members got sentences of between five years and 20 years in prison, the court statement said.
The engineer, Park Ki-ho, was convicted of homicide because he abandoned two injured colleagues, escaped the ferry and failed to tell rescuers about them, even though he knew they would die without help, the court said.
However, it cleared two other crew members of homicide charges for the same reasons it acquitted the captain. Those crew members got 15 and 20 years in prison, it said.
Prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal, according to the court. Relatives of the victims said in a statement they will ask prosecutors to appeal the ruling, but senior prosecutor Park Jae-eok said his office hasn't yet made a decision.
"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 accordingly," said Ko Young-hee, the mother of a teenage victim.
The 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ferry Sewol have faced scathing public criticism because they escaped while many passengers were still trapped in the sinking ship. A total of 476 people were aboard the ship and only 172 were rescued in the April disaster.
Prosecutors accused the crew members of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship even though they knew that passengers would be trapped and killed after it sank. The defense in the trial denied any collusion among the crew members, saying they were confused, injured and panicked.
Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are missing. Officials said Tuesday they've ended searches 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.
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' behavior, for the sinking.
The ship's billionaire owner was found dead about four months ago after fleeing arrest, and three of his relatives were sentenced last week to up to three years in prison for corruption. Last Friday, South Korean lawmakers approved plans to disband the coast guard and transfer its responsibilities.
South Korea has spent months debating public safety issues that critics say were largely ignored during the scramble to rebuild after the 1950-53 Korean War. But a series of smaller deadly accidents have occurred since the sinking. In mid-October, 16 people watching an outdoor pop concert fell to their deaths when a ventilation grate they were standing on collapsed.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung and Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.