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Sewol captain guilty of murder, prosecutors say

By Agence France-Presse in Seoul | China Daily | Updated: 2015-02-11 07:57

The captain of the Sewol ferry that sank in April with the loss of 304 lives, mostly students from the same high school, murdered his passengers by intentionally abandoning them to certain death, a South Korean appeals court heard on Tuesday.

Prosecutors argued for a homicide conviction at the first in a series of hearings that will include appeals from both the prosecution and defense in the case of Captain Lee Jun-seok and 14 of his surviving crew.

The 15 defendants were handed jail terms in November ranging from five to 36 years for their roles in the tragedy, which plunged the entire country into a lengthy period of mourning.

The 36-year sentence was imposed on Lee, who was convicted of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, but acquitted of a more serious homicide charge along with two crew members.

The prosecution wants the higher court to reconsider the dismissed homicide charges, while the defendants are appealing their convictions and the severity of the sentences.

The crew neglected their duty to rescue passengers "even though they knew they would die", one of the prosecutors told the high court in the southern city of Gwangju.

"So it was an intentional murder," the prosecutor was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

The notion of "intention" is at the core of the appeals lodged by both sides.

Dismissing homicide charges against Lee and two crew members in November, the lower court ruled prosecutors had failed to prove the defendants abandoned the ship with the knowledge that the passengers would die as a result.

The exception was the ship's chief engineer, who was convicted of homicide for specifically failing to help two injured crew members who then drowned.

Man-made tragedy

The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it capsized off South Korea's southern coast on April 16. Of the 304 who died, 250 were students 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 unhealthy connections 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.

Relatives of the victims said Lee and senior crew members deserve the death penalty.

A verdict is expected on April 28.

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