The captain of Sewol, the ferry that capsized last year, has been jailed for life after the prosecution appealed for a harsher penalty.
The appeals court in South Korea handed down the harsher sentence on 28 April.
Lee Jun-seok, 69, was originally jailed 36 years for negligence and dereliction of duty on 11 November 2014 after being acquitted of the murder charge that prosecutors sought.
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.
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. 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.
Lee and the crew also appealed against what they felt were harsh penalties. Their defence was that they were not trained to handle search-and-rescue activities, and that the Korea Coast Guard would have been in a better position to rescue the trapped passengers and crew.
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.
The ferry, which capsized after making a sudden sharp turn, was found to be structurally unstable and was habitually overloaded.
The bodies of nine victims – Danwon High School teachers Yang Seung-jin and Go Chang-suk; Danwon students Huh Da-yun, Park Young-in, Nam Hyun-cheol, and Cho Eun-hwa; a female passenger, Lee Young-sook; and a father-and-son pair, Kwon Jae-geun and Kwon Hyuk-gyu – remain missing.
Their families have been pressing for the ferry to be salvaged in the hope of recovering the bodies, and the works are expected to start in September this year, after President Park Geun-hye pledged to hoist the vessel that remains submerged in the Yellow Sea’s Maenggol Channel, notorious for its swift and unpredictable currents.