The ferry captain who abandoned hundreds of passengers, mostly school children, in South Korea’s worst maritime disaster was jailed for 36 years Tuesday, local media reported.

Lee Joon-seok, 68, was cleared of murder, which could have incurred the death penalty, but convicted of negligence in abandoning the Sewol, Yonhap news agency reported.

Of the 476 passengers, 172 were rescued. High schools students on a school trip accounted for 250 of the 304 confirmed dead or missing.

Prosecutors and victims’ families had called for Lee’s execution although South Korea has not imposed capital punishment since 1997.

He was among the first to be rescued after his ship ran into trouble on April 16. An investigation quickly revealed that passengers had been told to stay below decks as the ferry listed heavily, an order found to have been a leading factor in the high death toll.

The high proportion of teenagers among the victims further fuelled public outrage over a catalogue of mismanagement by the ship’s owners that affected safety standards. Yoo Dae-kyun, the son of the ferry’s owner, was convicted of embezzlement last week. His father committed suicide in July as police searched for him.

A total of 295 bodies have been recovered and the government officially ended the search for the nine remaining victims Tuesday due to the deterioration of the wreckage and bad conditions at sea and the threat to divers, two of whom have died searching for the remains of victims.

Gwangju District Court records show that Lee admitted he had not taken "appropriate measures," and even conceded that he "deserved to die," Yonhap reported.

In the days immediately after the tragedy, South Korean President Park Geun-hye publicly likened the disaster to murder - an allegation that Lee denied.

The court also found the Sewol's chief engineer guilty of homicide, sentencing him to 30 years, while 13 other crew members were given sentences of between five and 20 years.

The disaster raised questions about the implementation of safety standards in South Korea. The Sewol had been illegally redesigned and was carrying double the amount of cargo it was supposed to, something blamed on a lax regulation.

The coast guard was also criticized for its response and last week lawmakers approved plans to disband the body.

Anadolu Agency