A South Korean district court has handed a sentence of 36 years in prison to the captain of a ferry that sank in April, killing more than 300 people.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was on Tuesday found guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty. The ship’s chief engineer, Park Ki-ho, was given 30 years for homicide.
Prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal, according to the court.
The crew’s negligence and abandonment of passengers caused the deaths, said prosecutors, but the three-judge court said there was no evidence suggesting the captain acted with an intention to kill. Most of the dead were teenage students travelling to a southern island for a school trip.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Gwangju, said the verdict had provoked reactions of outrage among families of the ferry’s passengers, who see the punishment as “lenient”.
The captain has apologised for abandoning the passengers but has said he did not know his actions would lead to so many deaths.
“One of the passenger’s relatives ran out of the court screaming ‘Why weren’t they just released?'” our correspondent said.
Other defendants were given punishments ranging from five to 30 years, he said.
The ruling followed five months of dramatic, often painful testimony in the trial of Captain Lee and 14 other crew members of the Sewol, which was carrying hundreds of children on a school trip when it capsized off the southern coast.
The case has triggered widespread outrage and grief, after it emerged that the crew and captain were among the first to be rescued.
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The mostly teenage passengers were told to wait in their cabins.
The verdict comes as South Korea on Tuesday ended underwater searches for nine bodies still missing from the ferry disaster.
Searches for bodies and ferry wreckage have been under way since the Sewol sank on a trip to a resort island. About seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been retrieved.
Lee Ju-young, oceans and fisheries minister, told a televised news conference that the searches will stop as of Tuesday as there was only a remote chance of finding the missing bodies.
Lee said cabins in the ferry had collapsed and winter was coming, placing divers in a “very dangerous situation”.
He said family members of the missing people had asked the government to stop the underwater searches.
“As our loved ones remain trapped in the cold waters, this decision is unbearably painful for us.”
Two civilian divers died after falling unconscious during searches, according to Lee’s ministry.
Lee said he felt sorry for failing to keep a government promise to find all the missing bodies.