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South Korea Ferry Captain Sentenced to Life in Prison

Judges sit to preside over verdicts of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol's crew members are charged with negligence and abandonment of passengers in the disaster at Gwangju High Court in Gwangju, South Korea, April 28, 2015.

South Korean appeals court has handed a sentence of life in prison to the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank last year, overturning a lighter punishment by a lower court.

The high court in the southern city of Gwangju on Tuesday convicted Lee Joon-seol of the murder of 304 passengers who died when the ferry sank last April off the country's southwest coast.

In November, a lower court sentenced Lee to 36 years in jail after finding him guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty for abandoning the passengers, who were mostly high school students on a school outing.

Lee's action "seriously hurt our national image, [and] is not forgivable for any reasons," according to a court statement published by the South Korean news agency, Yonhap.

The court also reduced the sentence of 14 crew members. They will now receive jail terms ranging from 18 months to 12 years, instead of the five- to 30-year sentences handed down in November.

Many of the surviving passengers say they were told over the ferry's loudspeakers not to attempt to flee the sinking ship. The crew were among the first to be rescued.

Many South Koreans remain outraged, both at the crew as well as the government, which has acknowledged that corruption and lax safety standards contributed to the tragedy.

Earlier this month on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed to raise the sunken ferry, which remains submerged upside down in the same location where it sank.

Officials previously had been reluctant to raise the ship, saying such an operation would take months and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Families insisted the ship be salvaged, saying this will help bring closure and determine the exact cause of the accident. It could also help authorities locate the bodies of nine victims that remain missing.