The same day officials called off search efforts for the final nine victims of a South Korea ferry sinking, the highly anticipated verdict was announced in one of the worst disasters in South Korean history. Victims’ relatives immediately criticized the sentences for Captain Lee Joon-seok and 14 other crew members as being too lenient. Lee was acquitted of a homicide charge, which could have resulted in a death sentence, because the court said there wasn’t proof that he knew his actions would cause such a massive loss of life, ABC News reports.
“Do you know how many children are dead?” one victim’s relative cried out during the sentencing, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives. “This isn’t right,” another screamed.
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The outrage and anger alludes to the lack of closure many feel over the ferry sinking. The tragedy sent shock waves across the world – especially South Korea who had grown used to thinking of itself as an ultra-modern economic, diplomatic and cultural powerhouse; a country that had left behind a string of deadly, high-profile accidents blamed on failures of infrastructure and regulation as it rose from poverty, war and dictatorship.
More than six months after the ferry sank, South Korea still faces recriminations over claims that authorities were incompetent during rescue efforts, along with greed, corruption, and lack of interest in safety of government regulators and the ship’s owners and operators, doomed the victims.
Most of the ferry passengers were teenagers taking a school trip to a southern island, and many of the student survivors recall being repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ship and that they didn’t remember any evacuation order being given before they helped each other escape the vessel.
Lee has said he issued an evacuation order, but he told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared the passengers’ safety in the cold waters.
The Gwanangju District Court in southern South Korea stated in its verdict that Lee had in fact issued an evacuation order and that he fled the ship after rescue boats arrived on the scene.
In addition to Lee’s sentencing, the court sentenced the ship’s chief engineer to 30 years in prison, and 13 other crew members received sentences between five years and 20 years in prison, the court statement said.