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Captain is jailed for 36 years over 300 ferry deaths

A South Korean court has handed a 36-year prison sentence to the captain of a sunken ferry, saying he was professionally negligent and abandoned his passengers in the disaster that killed more than 300 people.

The chief engineer got 30 years and 13 other crew members were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Captain Lee Joon-seok and three other key crew members were earlier indicted by prosecutors on homicide and other charges. Eleven others faced less serious charges.


Lee has apologised for abandoning the passengers but said he did not know his action would lead to so many deaths.

The widely vilified Lee could have received a death sentence for the homicide charges. South Korea has not executed anyone since 1997.

Prosecutors and the crew members have a week to appeal.

The 15 crew members tasked with navigating the Sewol ferry have faced scathing public criticism because they escaped the sinking ship while many of their passengers were still trapped inside. A total of 476 people were aboard the ship and only 172 were rescued.

Most of the dead were teenage students on a school trip.

Nearly seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been recovered but nine are still missing. South Korean officials said today they have ended searches for the missing because there was only a remote chance of finding more bodies, while worries have grown over the safety of divers. Two civilian divers have died after falling unconscious during searches.

The Sewol's sinking in April led to widespread grief and national soul-searching.

Authorities blamed overloaded cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and corruption by the ship's owners that prevented enough spending on safety.

Last Friday, South Korean lawmakers approved plans to disband the coastguard and transfer its responsibilities to other government agencies. The coastguard was criticised for unprofessional, slow rescue efforts.

Also last week, three relatives of the ship's billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison, about four months after the tycoon was found dead after he fled the law.