Nautilus International, the trade union and professional organisation for maritime professionals, has denounced the life sentence handed down to the Sewol ferry captain on 28 April.
Lee Jun-seok, 69, was originally sentenced to 36 years in prison on 11 November 2014 for negligence and for after being acquitted of the murder charge that prosecutors sought.
However, the prosecution appealed, saying Lee and the crew had caused the deaths of more than 300 passengers and crew by abandoning the vessel in the knowledge that they could drown. As a result, prosecutors felt Lee and the crew should have been convicted of homicide.
Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said, “Once again, a captain has been made the scapegoat as a result of political pressure and media misrepresentation.”
“Pinning the blame on an individual in this way helps to obscure the underlying causes of the accident, including regulatory failure, overloading, and design changes,” he pointed out. “It is the lawmakers that determine the actions of owners and set the levels of safety. It should not be masters that suffer for their failure.”
The appeals court agreed that Lee should be convicted of homicide, but not for the other crew members who were merely obeying the captain’s instructions to abandon the vessel.
The appeals court had reduced the sentences for 14 other crew members, who were initially jailed from five to 30 years for their role in the tragedy, to between 18 months and 12 years.
Sewol, carrying 476 passengers and crew, capsized during a routine Incheon-Jeju trip on 16 April 2014, leaving 304 dead or missing. Many of the victims were Danwon High School students on an excursion to Jeju Island. Nine bodies remain missing.
The ferry, which capsized after making a sudden sharp turn, was found to be structurally unstable and was habitually overloaded.
Nautilus International represents 22,000 maritime professionals including ship masters (captains), officers, officer trainees (cadets), and shipping industry personnel, such as ship pilots, inland navigation workers, vessel traffic services operators (similar to air traffic control), harbourmasters, seafarers in the oil and gas industry, and shore-based staff.