Ed Jones / Reuters

S. Korea ferry captain, crew sentenced for roles in disaster

Capt. Lee Joon-seok was sentenced to 36 years for the Sewol ferry sinking in which more than 300 people died

A South Korean court on Tuesday handed a 36-year prison sentence to the captain of a sunken ferry, saying he was professionally negligent and abandoned his passengers during the disaster in April that killed more than 300 people.

The chief engineer received a sentence of 30 years from Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea. The court found the 13 surviving crewmembers guilty of various charges, including negligence, and handed down prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok and three other key crewmembers were earlier indicted by prosecutors on homicide and other charges. Eleven others faced less serious charges.

Lee has apologized for abandoning the passengers, but said he didn't know his action would lead to so many deaths. He could have received a death sentence for the homicide charges.

Prosecutors and the crewmembers have one week to appeal, according to the court.

The Sewol's sinking, one of the country's deadliest disasters in decades, led to widespread national grief and soul-searching. Authorities blamed overloaded cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and corruption by the ship's owners that prevented enough spending on safety, along with the crew members' behavior.

Many student survivors have said they were 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 flee the vessel.

Lee has said he issued an evacuation order for passengers. But he initially told reporters days after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for the passengers' safety in the cold, swift waters.

The 15 crewmembers have faced scathing public criticism because they escaped the sinking Sewol while many of their passengers were still trapped inside. Video footage of the crew abandoning the vessel after instructing the passengers, mostly teenagers, to remain in their cabins caused outrage throughout South Korea.

Of the 476 people aboard the ferry, only 172 were rescued. Of the 304 confirmed dead or still listed as missing, 250 were students on a trip to the holiday island of Jeju.

Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are still missing. South Korean officials said Tuesday they've ended searches for the missing because there was only a remote chance of finding more bodies while worries have grown over the safety of divers. Two civilian divers have died after falling unconscious during searches.

Last Friday, South Korean lawmakers approved plans to disband the coast guard and transfer its responsibilities to other government agencies. The coast guard was criticized for unprofessional, slow rescue efforts. Also last week, three relatives of the ship's billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison, about four months after the tycoon was found dead after he fled.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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