Owner Sentenced In Seoul Mall Collapse -- Father And Son Convicted Of Negligence, Bribing Officials

SEOUL, South Korea - A court today gave a 10 1/2-year prison sentence to the owner of a shopping mall that collapsed, killing 501 people and injuring 900 in the worst civil-engineering disaster in South Korean history.

Relatives of the victims had demanded the death penalty for Lee Joon, 73, who was found guilty of negligence in the June 30 accident, when the five-story Sampoong Department Store crumpled with more than 1,500 shoppers and employees inside.

Lee Han Sang, Lee's 43-year-old son and the president of the mall, was convicted of negligence and bribing government officials and sentenced to seven years. The three-judge court also imposed prison terms ranging from eight months to three years and fines of up to $17,000 for 23 others charged with various irregularities connected to the collapse.

"The defendants deserve stern punishment for bribing relevant officials, thus causing a major disaster," senior Judge Lee Kwang Yol said.

Faulty design and poor construction were blamed for the collapse. Witnesses said the roof of the mall had been crumbling all day, but that officials left after meeting to discuss the situation and deciding to take no action.

The organization that represents the victims' families repeated its stance that both Lees should be executed and said it will stage rallies to express dissatisfaction.

"We are angry. They deserved the highest punishment possible. They deserved the death sentence," the group said.

Under South Korean law, however, the death penalty is not applicable in negligence cases.

Among those convicted were 12 Seoul city officials who took bribes in exchange for allowing illegal design changes and construction. Eleven defendants, mostly low-level mall and construction-company officials, were given two-year suspended sentences.

The collapse and subsequent rescue work received wide attention as several people were rescued alive after being trapped for up to 16 days in the rubble without food or water except for rain that seeped through.

With the five floors collapsing like pancakes and a fire that burned for two days, some remains were so badly damaged they could not be identified or even found.

Thirty-one families, unable to find bodies, recently held mass funeral services with unidentified remains in one large urn.

Compensation still remains unresolved. Families are asking on average $361,000 per victim. The city, representing the Sampoong owner, has offered $220,000 for each victim. It said the mall owner can't afford more.