GWANGJU, South Korea (AFP) - A South Korean court handed down a 36-year jail sentence on Tuesday to the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank in April, but acquitted him of murdering the 304 people who died in the disaster.
The three-judge bench ruled that prosecutors, who had demanded the death penalty for Captain Lee Jun Seok, failed to prove the most serious charge of "homicide through wilful negligence".
But the court found Lee, 69, guilty of severe dereliction of duty, including abandoning the ferry while hundreds of passengers - most of them schoolchildren - remained trapped on board.
The ruling followed five months of dramatic, often painful testimony in the trial of Lee and 14 other crew members of the Sewol which capsized off the southern coast on April 16.
Three other senior crew members, who had also faced homicide charges, were sentenced to jail terms of up to 30 years.
"We find it hard to conclude that the defendants ...were aware that all of the victims would die because of their actions and they had an intention to kill them," the bench said.
"Therefore the murder charges are not accepted."
Of the 304 confirmed dead or still listed as missing, 250 were school children. The last body to be recovered was on Oct 28, more than 100 days after the previous one was pulled from the vessel.
Nine bodies are still unaccounted for. South Korea said on Tuesday that it was calling off a search for the nine passengers still missing.
The approach of winter and the structural weakening of the vessel that has been under water for seven months in strong currents made it dangerous for divers to continue searching for those missing, Maritime Minister Lee Ju Young told a briefing.
"I am sincerely sorry to announce the end of the search operation while not being able to keep my word to continue searching until the very last one is found," he said.
The decision to end the search was agreed by the families of the nine passengers still missing who have kept a vigil on a southern island near the scene of the disaster, he added.