The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast in April, killing 304 people in the country's worst disasters in decades, was sentenced on Tuesday to 36 years in prison.
Lee Joon-seok, the 68-year-old captain of the Sewol, was found guilty of criminal negligence and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, Yonhap news agency reported. Prosecutors had sought a murder conviction and the death penalty, a punishment rarely carried out in the country.
More than 470 people were on board the ship at the time of the sinking. Of those, only 172 people were rescued.
The disaster claimed the lives of mostly teenage students traveling to the vacation island of Jeju on a school trip. Seven months after the sinking, officials said earlier Tuesday they had ended the underwater search for victims aboard the ferry after 295 bodies were located. Nine others remain missing.
In addition to the captain, the Gwangju District Court sentenced the ferry's chief engineer, Park Gi-ho, to 30 years in prison, and 13 other crew members were sentenced to up to 20 years behind bars, the Associated Press reported.
Investigators said the ship was overloaded with cargo that apparently shifted during a sharp turn, causing the ferry to list for hours and eventually sink. Prosecutors blamed Lee and the crew members for not properly securing the cargo, then abandoning the ferry and jumping aboard rescue boats while telling passengers to stay put.
Lee initially said he didn't order an evacuation of the ship out of concern rescuers had not yet arrived and passengers would be forced to swim in the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea, though he later claimed to have issued an evacuation. Survivors have said they were told to remain on the ship and were not given an order to evacuate.
The country's coast guard was criticized by victims' families and government officials for slow rescue efforts and its handling of the investigation. Last week, South Korean lawmakers agreed to disband the coast guard altogether, reassigning the duties to the National Police Agency and another yet-to-be-established safety agency.
Lee has apologized for his actions aboard the ship, saying he was "stunned" by the accident.
"I am sorry. I've committed a crime for which I should die," Lee told the court last month. "I will beg for forgiveness until the day I die. May the victims rest in peace."
Later on Tuesday, a prosecutor said his team would be launching an appeal against the court's rulings on 15 of the ferry's crew members, Reuters reported.
Jon Passantino is the Los Angeles bureau chief for BuzzFeed News.
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