Former coast guard chief acquitted of botched rescue activities in Sewol ferry sinking

SEOUL-- A Seoul court on Monday acquitted a former maritime police chief of mishandling the rescue operation during the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 that killed more than 300 people.

The Seoul Central District Court found Kim Suk-kyoon, then-chief of the Korea Coast Guard, not guilty of professional negligence in one of the country's worst peacetime disasters.

Nine others, who were in key posts of the organization at that time, were also acquitted of the same charge.

Delivering the ruling, judge Yang Chul-han said the prosecution failed to substantiate the allegations against the 10 defendants.

He said given the little information the defendants had about the state of the ferry at that time, it was difficult for them to come up with an evacuation or rescue order.

The judge also rejected any causality between the defendants' alleged negligence of duty and the occurrence of casualties from the ferry's sinking.

"With no more information than what the Jindo vessel traffic monitoring center that directly communicated with the Sewol ferry had gathered about the situation of the disaster, it was not easy for the defendants to make any decision," Yang said.

"They could be blamed for the disorganized system in dealing with a massive deadly (maritime) disaster but cannot be held criminally liable," he added.

In the same ruling, two people, including one of the 10 former and current officials acquitted of the professional negligence charge, were given suspended sentences for fabricating documents related to the case.

The ferry sank off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula on April 16, 2014, along with 250 high school kids and 11 teachers, who were traveling to the southern resort island of Jeju on a school field trip. Around 300 people died in the tragedy.

In February of last year, the prosecution's special investigative unit indicted the defendants on charges of failing to guide the passengers to swiftly evacuate from the ship and lead a timely rescue operation needed to save them.

The prosecution had demanded prison sentences ranging from one to five years for the defendants.

The maritime officials had claimed that they could not be legally held responsible, though they felt sorrow for the loss and regret over the failed rescue operation.

Immediately denouncing the court decision as "unconvincing," however, the special prosecution investigative unit said it will appeal the ruling.

Families of the victims also slammed the not-guilty ruling as "socially regressive."

"Not only the bereaved families but also the public will not be able to accept the court decision in favor of the defendants," the families said in a press conference in front of the court, vowing to take all actions possible against the ruling.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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