SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean appeals court on Tuesday found the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank a year ago guilty of murdering the 304 people who died in the disaster and upped his sentence to life imprisonment.
The ruling in the southern city of Gwangju overturned a lower court decision which had acquitted Lee Jun Seok of homicide charges in November, convicting him instead of gross negligence and sentencing him to 36 years.
Most of the victims were high school students on an organised trip and their families had been outraged by the homicide acquittal.
During the appeal hearing, prosecutors had asked the court to reconsider the most serious charge of murder through wilful negligence.
They also insisted that Lee, 69, deserved execution, arguing that he had abandoned his passengers in the clear knowledge that they would die.
“Captain Lee’s irresponsible activity led to the death of young students who perished without realising their dreams... and he inflicted an incurable injury on their parents,” the high court said in its ruling.
“He gave up his duty as captain... and must be separated forever from our society,” it said, adding that Lee’s actions had seriously damaged South Korea’s national image.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it went down off the southwest island of Jindo on April 16 last year. Of the 304 who died, 250 were pupils from the same high school.
The tragedy shocked and enraged the country as it became clear that it was almost entirely man-made – the result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, an inexperienced crew and an unhealthy nexus between operators and state regulators.
Lee and his crew were publicly vilified, especially after video footage emerged showing them escaping the vessel while hundreds remained trapped on board.
Reacting to Tuesday’s murder conviction, Jeong Hye Sun, the mother of one of the students who died, said she was still unhappy that Lee had escaped a death sentence.
“What’s the difference between 36 years and a life sentence for an old man? He should have been sentenced to death,” Jeong told AFP.
At the original trial, Lee said he had committed a crime for which “I deserve to die", but strenuously denied he had ever intended to sacrifice the lives of the passengers.
Fourteen crew members were given prison terms ranging from five to 30 years in November, but the appeals court cut those down to between 18 months and 12 years.