SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The South Korean ferry captain responsible for last year's disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, was given an increased sentence of life in prison Tuesday by an appellate court that convicted him of homicide.
A district court in November had sentenced Lee Joon-seok to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers in need, but acquitted him of homicide. Victims' relatives criticized the verdict at the time, saying it was too lenient. Prosecutors earlier had demanded the death penalty for Lee.
Lee's sentence was increased because the Gwangju High Court convicted him of the homicide charges while upholding most of other charges that led to his November conviction, according to a court statement.
Lee committed "homicide by willful negligence" because he fled the ship without making any evacuation order, though he, as a captain, is required by law to take some measures to rescue his passengers, the statement said.
"For whatever excuses, it's difficult to forgive Lee Joon-seok's action that caused a big tragedy," the court statement cited the verdict as saying.
The appellate court sentenced 14 other navigation crew members to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 12 years, the statement said. In November, they had received sentences of five to 30 years in prison.
Lee and the 14 crew members have been the subject of fierce public anger because they were among the first people rescued from the ship when it began badly listing on the day of the sinking in April last year. Most of the victims were teenagers who were en route to a southern island for a school trip.
Lee has said he issued an evacuation order. But many student survivors have said that they were repeatedly ordered over a loudspeaker to stay on the sinking ferry and that they didn't remember any evacuation orders by crew members before they helped each other flee the ship.
In November, the Gwangju District Court supported Lee's claim to have made an evacuation order and said there wasn't proof that he knew his escape from the ship would cause a massive loss of life.
But the appellate court overturned that ruling, saying Lee didn't take other necessary steps to save passengers that he should have taken if he indeed issued an evacuation order. The court also said two of the 14 navigation crew members acknowledged that there was no evacuation order and that there were loudspeaker broadcasts asking passengers to stay inside even while Lee was fleeing the ship.
Court spokesman Jeon Ilho said prosecutors and the crew members have one week to appeal the verdicts.
A year after the sinking, 295 bodies have been retrieved, but nine others are missing. There is still lingering public criticism against the government over its handling of the sinking, the country's deadliest maritime disaster in decades.
In this handout provided by Donga Daily, The Republic of Korea Coast Guard work at the site of ferry sinking accident off the coast of Jindo Island on April 16, 2014 in Jindo-gun, South Korea. (Handout/Getty Images)
South Korea announced last week that it would salvage the ship off the country's southwest coast at an estimated cost of $91 million to $137 million. Relatives of the victims hope the salvaging will locate the missing and help reveal more details about the sinking.
Authorities blame excessive cargo, improper storage and negligence for the sinking. Critics say higher-level officials haven't been accountable.