SEOUL, -- Four former ranking officials of ousted President Park Geun-hye's government were given suspended prison sentences on Tuesday after being convicted of obstructing an independent panel's investigation into the cause of the deadly sinking of the Sewol ferry.

The panel was set up in 2015 under a special law enacted to determine why the 6,800-ton ship capsized in waters off the southwest coast in 2014, killing more than 300 people, mostly high school students. The panel, composed of maritime experts, lawyers and civilians, delved into government documents and prosecution reports and gathered evidence.Prosecutors indicted former Presidential Chief of Staff Lee Byung-kee, former Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Cho Yoon-sun and former Presidential Secretary for Economic Affairs Ahn Jong-beom in June 2017 on charges of hindering the establishment and activities of the Sewol panel, while former Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Kim Young-suk and former Vice Oceans Minister Yoon Hak-bae were indicted in December 2017 on the same charges.

The Seoul Eastern District Court sentenced Lee and Cho to one year in prison, suspended for two years, and acquitted Ahn of his criminal charge. Kim received a two-year imprisonment, suspended for three years, while Yoon was given a jail term of one and a half years, suspended for two years.

"This court ruled on whether the suspects abused their power to obstruct the Sewol panel's foundation and activities, instead of whether they are morally or politically responsible," judge Min Cheol-ki said, adding that it is regrettable that the panel has concluded its activities without any particular accomplishment.

The judge said the court determined the length of the sentences in consideration of the suspects' power in the drawing up of government documents on how to cope with the Sewol panel.

In the previous hearings, prosecutors had demanded three-year prison terms for Lee, Cho and Kim and two-year imprisonments for Ahn and Yoon.

Source: Yonhap news Agency