A South Korean appeals court has found the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank a year ago guilty of murder and upped his sentence to life imprisonment, a court official says.
The ruling on Tuesday, 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.
Relatives of the more than 300 people – mostly schoolchildren – who perished on the Sewol when it sank in April last year had been outraged by the homicide acquittal.
They also insisted that Lee 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 dream … and he inflicted an incurable injury on their parents,” the Yonhap news agency cited the appeals’ court ruling as saying.
“His action, which seriously hurt our national image, is not forgivable for any reasons,” it said.
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.
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.