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Tuesday, June 21, 2016, 15:04

Marine official jailed for 16 months over ferry disaster

By Li Xiange

Marine official jailed for 16 months over ferry disaster
Rescuers approach a partially-submerged boat after two vessels collided in Hong Kong, on Oct 1, 2012.  (Photo provide to China Daily)

HONG KONG - Former assistant director of the Marine Department So Ping-chi on Tuesday was sentenced to 16 months in prison for misconduct in public office over the deadly Lamma ferry collision that killed 39 people in 2012.

When passing down the sentence, District Court judge Douglas Yau Tak-hong said it was a serious matter for So, as a principal surveyor of ships of the department at that time, to order his subordinates not to follow the new regulation requiring that the number of life vests should match with the number of passengers on board, with an additional 5 percent of lifejackets for children.

Yau said although the case did not involve any dishonesty or corruption, as principle surveyor of ships So was in a position to call off the grace practice which allowed the original regulations to continue to apply on existing vessels while applying the new regulations only on new ships.

The judge said it must be shocking for the public to find out that a senior official of the Marine Department chose to deliberately ignore the lifejacket requirement in order to appease the industry – and for such a long time.

So was accused of misconduct in public office during his time as the general manager and principal surveyor of ships with the local vessels safety branch from April 2007 to August 2010. The new regulation on lifejackets was introduced in 2007 and met rejection from the ferry industry.

The judge said the damage from So's misconduct was serious and far-reaching. The misconduct had eroded the public trust placed in the Marine Department – if not the entire civil service system which was renowned for integrity and efficiency.

It was going to take some time for the trust to fully recover, the judge said.

The original sentence starting point was 18 months’ imprisonment. But after mitigation, two months were crossed off. More than 10 mitigation letters appraised So’s devotion to his work and contribution to the industry.

The fatal ferry disaster took place on Oct 1, 2012 – National Day – when the Lamma IV carrying 127 employees of Hong Kong Electric and their families on their way to view a fireworks display above Victoria Harbour collided with Hong Kong-Kowloon Ferry’s vessel Sea Smooth. A total of 39 people on board were killed, including eight children.

Another government official, retired senior ship inspector of the department Wong Kam-ching, was found guilty of perjury earlier this year for lying under oath during a hearing of an inquiry into the accident, claiming he had counted 12 children's life jackets on the Lamma IV vessel during inspection.

Besides So and Wong, a total of four people have been sentenced to prison in the aftermath of the disaster. These include the skipper of Sea Smooth Lai Sai-ming, who was sentenced to eight years in prison on 39 counts of manslaughter and endangering the lives of others at sea, and the captain of Lamma IV, Chow Chi-wai, who was convicted of endangering the lives of others at sea and sentenced to nine months in prison.

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