Top court upholds life sentence against Sewol captain

Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol, sits for verdicts as the ship's crew members are charged with negligence and abandonment of passengers in the disaster at Gwangju High Court in Gwangju, South Korea,

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the life sentence for Lee Joon-seok, 70, who was captain of the ferry Sewol that sank off the southwest coast in April last year killing 304 on board. He was among the first to be rescued, without giving evacuation orders to the passengers.

The court made the full bench decision that Lee had committed murder by gross negligence in the appeal filed by Lee and 14 other crew members.

"While he could have easily informed the passengers of the urgent situation and reduce the number of casualties, Lee fled the ferry without doing so," Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae said. "Even after Lee escaped, he did not provide information on the situation onboard to the Coast Guard, being totally indifferent to the passengers' safety."

The court, meanwhile, maintained the previous ruling against the chief, second mate of the ship and chief engineer of negligent homicide.

The first ruling had convicted Lee of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, giving him a 36-year prison term.

The second ruling, meanwhile, ruled Lee was guilty of murder, saying it had more grounds to deem he never made the evacuation orders. Lee received a life sentence.

The ferry was en route to the southern resort island of Jejudo from Incheon, west of Seoul, on April 16. Most of the victims were high school students on a field trip.

Preparations began this summer to salvage the ferry, which remains at the bottom of the sea along with nine missing bodies.

The sinking of the 6,825-ton vessel is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in Korea.

Nationwide outcry broke out after it was learned that most crew members, including Lee Joon-seok, had abandoned the ship before passengers were led to safety.

The incident also unveiled a network of corruption between government and civil officials, and sparked criticism over the government's failure to conduct effective rescue operations, which led to President Park Geun-hye disbanding the Korea Coast Guard.