Criminal penalties too light

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Criminal penalties too light

The public’s despair and fury have gone into overdrive after it learned of the irresponsible, selfish and poor actions that caused one of the country’s worst maritime accidents ever. The thoughtless and cold move by the Sewol’s captain and crew, who were quick to abandon their sinking ship while leaving behind hundreds of students and other passengers below deck, is beyond belief and pardon. They must be punished in the severest manner. In fact, our criminal code should be rewritten in order to place human lives as a top priority.

The joint police and prosecution team sought a court order to indict Lee Jun-seok, captain of the ferry that capsized in waters off the southwestern cost with 476 people on board. Lee is suspected of leaving the helm to his third mate, who had little sea experience. He and 19 other members of a 29-person crew, abandoned the sinking ferry with alacrity. His third mate and another sailor were also indicted for negligence of duty.

Lee is said to have delivered an order to continue advising passengers to stay where they were before he fled. If not for this mindless act, we may not be missing nearly 300 people. The Seafarers Act stipulates that a captain must not leave a ship until all passengers have disembarked. The captain has the duty to command rescue in times of accident and disaster. The act also demands the captain take all necessary actions to save lives.

Despite the gravity of the consequences, current laws remain excessively light in terms of penalties. Even with the enforcement of a special law and breach of the Seafarers Act, the captain could get away with just five years in jail and a fine of less than 20 million won. That is too light a price for hundreds of deaths.

Legal advisers are suggesting charges of involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent manslaughter for causing mass deaths through gross and willful negligence of duty. In 2012, Italian prosecutors concocted a prison sentence of 2,697 years for a captain who abandoned his stricken cruise liner, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded on board: 15 years for manslaughter, 10 years for the disaster, eight years for each passenger who was abandoned and another eight for each of those who died. We need tough laws related to public safety too.

The shipping company should also face criminal liability. A U.S. court punishes the company for the liability of its employees to raise corporate accountability for training employees. Our entire system must be upgraded in order to prevent such mass-scale disasters.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 19, Page 26

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