South Korea’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a murder conviction and life sentence for the captain in the Sewol ferry disaster, saying he had effectively drowned more than 300 passengers to save himself.
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.
Captain Lee Jun-Seok and his crew were publicly vilified, especially after video footage emerged showing them escaping the vessel while hundreds remained trapped on board.
“Captain Lee made it impossible for passengers to leave the ship on their own by escaping from the ship first without issuing an evacuation order,” chief justice Yang Sung-Tae said as he read out Thursday’s ruling.
“This is equivalent to pushing passengers into water and letting them drown,” Yang said.
In his first trial a year ago, Lee, now 70 years old, had been acquitted of homicide charges and convicted instead of gross negligence.
That decision was overturned on appeal in April and replaced by the murder verdict and a life sentence -- the ruling upheld by the apex court on Thursday.
“The accused abandoned his role as captain wilfully and entirely,” Yang said.
“He was fully aware of the deaths that would come,” he added.
At his original trial, Lee had acknowledged committing a crime for which “I deserve to die”, but strenuously denied he had ever intended to sacrifice the lives of the passengers.
The Supreme Court also upheld jail sentences for 14 members of Lee’s crew ranging from 18 months to 12 years.