Appeals court convicts S Korea ferry captain of murder

Appeals court convicts S Korea ferry captain of murder
Above: Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol

SEOUL - A South Korean appeals court on Tuesday 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 said.

The ruling 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.

During the appeal hearing, prosecutors had asked the court to reconsider the most serious charge of murder through wilful negligence.

They also insisted that Lee deserved the death penalty, arguing that he had abandoned his passengers in the clear knowledge that they would die.

The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it went down off the southwest island of Jindo. 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.

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