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South Korean Ferry Captain Sentenced To 36 Years

The captain of the Sewol, the South Korean ferry that capsized and killed 304 people, many of them students, has been sentenced to 36 years in prison. The punishment for the April calamity drew shouts and sharp criticism from victims' family members in the courtroom; many had urged a death sentence.

Prosecutors had reportedly sought the death penalty for the captain, Lee Joon-seok, citing the charge of homicide that stood against him. He was acquitted of that charge Tuesday. Lee, 69, has apologized for his actions, which included abandoning the doomed vessel as it listed severely to one side – and as some crew members struggled to get passengers off the ship.

Reuters reports on the scene in the courtroom Tuesday:

" 'Judge, this is not right,' a woman screamed in anguish as some of the other family members broke down in tears.

" 'Is this how little the lives of our children were worth?' another said. 'The death sentence is not enough for the crew.' "

"In the same ruling, the court convicted chief engineer Park Ki-ho of murder, as he was blamed for deserting two wounded staff when the ferry was sinking," The Korea Herald reports.

The newspaper adds that two other crew members were sentenced to 10-year jail terms, and nine others received terms of 5-7 years.

The case has been an emotional one, in part because of the deaths of dozens of students and in part because video footage showed crew members leaving the ship. Survivors have said that the passengers were instructed to remain in their cabins.

The captain and other crew were found guilty of negligence in the disaster that struck as the ferry headed for a resort island with more than 400 people on board. A transcript of radio transmissions reflected both confusion and the captain's absence.

Analysis of the ferry and the company that owns it has suggested it was overloaded, making it vulnerable to tipping over during turns.

The fallout from the disaster has been wide. In April, South Korea's prime minister resigned. And in May, South Korea's President Park Geun-hye disbanded the Coast Guard.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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