The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank in April causing the deaths of more than 300 passengers and crew was sentenced to 36 years in prison yesterday, as officials called off the underwater search for those still missing.
A court in the city of Gwangju found 68-year-old Lee not guilty of murder, but did convict him of gross negligence.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Lee Joon-sook, who abandoned his vessel while hundreds of people remained trapped within its hull.
The overloaded ferry Sewol had capsized while making a turn on a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju.
Victims' relatives who were present in the courtroom in the southern city of Gwangju, reacted furiously to the murder acquittal. "Where is the justice?" one woman shouted at the judges, while others wept openly.
"Thirty-six years is a long time and given his age it's effectively a life sentence," Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, said last night.
"This issue has paralysed South Korean politics and society and the sense is largely that it's time to move on."
A total of 304 people died when the 6,825-ton Sewol sank on April 16, the vast majority of them students on a school excursion to the island of Jeju.
A further 172 people were rescued. Nine bodies have still not been recovered and the South Korean government announced earlier on Tuesday that it would halt the seven-month search for the missing.
Conditions in the waters off southwest Korea have deteriorated and the interior of the wreck is becoming increasingly weak and dangerous, the government said.
The focus now will switch to raising the ship and conducting a further search, although no deadline has been set for the recovery.
During his trial, Lee had stated that he had "committed a sin, worthy of death" but denied that he had been wilfully negligent in his actions.
After Lee was sentenced, the court announced that the chief engineer of the ferry would serve a 30-year term, and found all the remaining 13 surviving crew members guilty of various charges, including negligence, handing down prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. Despite the apparent severity of the sentences inside the court enraged parents wept and screamed.
"Do you know how many children are dead?" one relative shouted out during the sentencing, according to Kook Joung-don, a lawyer for the relatives. "This isn't right," another screamed.
The intense anger points to the lack of closure many here feel over the sinking.
The tragedy shocked a country that had grown used to thinking of itself as an ultra-modern economic, diplomatic and cultural powerhouse - a country that had left behind a string of deadly, high-profile accidents blamed on failures of infrastructure and regulation as it rose from poverty, war and dictatorship.
More than half-a-year after the ferry sank, the country still grapples with recriminations over claims that authorities' incompetence during rescue efforts, along with the greed, corruption and lack of interest in safety of government regulators and the ship's owners and operators, doomed the victims. (© Daily Telegraph, London)