The head of a company that operated South Korea’s Sewol ferry, which capsized in April, leaving more than 300 people dead, has been convicted of manslaughter over the disaster.
A court in the southern city of Gwangju sentenced Kim Han-Sik, CEO of Chonghaejin Marine Co, to 10 years in prison after finding that the company allowed the ferry to be routinely overloaded.
The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people – most of them high school students on an organised trip – when the overloaded, ill-balanced vessel commanded by what the court termed as an “incompetent” crew capsized off the southern coast on April 16.
Kim, 71, was also found guilty of allowing the ship’s cargo to be left unsecured in breach of safety standards.
Ten other defendants, including six from Chonghaejin Marine, stood trial with Kim. One was acquitted and nine were given sentences ranging from suspended jail terms to six years in prison.
Kim had repeatedly denied responsibility, insisting he was a salaried employee under the thumb of company owner Yoo Byung-Eun, whom he described as being deeply involved in the hands-on operations of the firm.
Kim was also convicted of diverting $2.6m from Chonghaejin Marine over the past four years and funnelling it to Yoo, Yoo’s other companies and Yoo’s family members.
Following the disaster, Yoo became the target of a massive manhunt. His badly decomposed body was found in a field in June but an autopsy failed to determine the cause of death.
Yoo’s eldest son, Yoo Dae-Kyun, was jailed for three years earlier this month for embezzlement, while his widow is still awaiting sentencing on the same charge.
The Sewol‘s captain, Lee Jun-Seok, was jailed for 36 years last week, convicted of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, including abandoning his vessel while hundreds of passengers remained trapped on board.
Lee’s defence lawyer had argued that Chonghaejin Marine bore the most responsibility, as it had ordered the illegal refit and determined the amount of cargo the vessel carried.
The verdict on the company officials came a day after the official launch of the new Ministry of Public Safety and Security, established in response to the Sewol tragedy.
A major ministry with more than 10,000 staff, it will take over responsibilities previously shared by a number of state units – including the national coastguard, which was disbanded in the wake of the Sewol tragedy.
The official response to the disaster was widely criticised for being slow, uncoordinated and unfocused, and prompted President Park Geun-Hye to vow a complete overhaul of national safety standards.