A South Korean court on Wednesday convicted three former police officers of destroying internal files and other evidence in an attempted cover-up after a Halloween crowd crush that killed nearly 160 people in the capital, Seoul, in 2022. They were the first convictions over the deaths.

The high death toll was largely blamed on official failures in disaster planning and a botched emergency response. More than 20 government and police officials were indicted.

The Seoul Western District Court sentenced Park Seong-min, a former senior intelligence officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, to 18 months in prison on charges that he ordered subordinates to erase internal documents after the crush. Those included reports showing how police ignored warnings about possible crowd-related accidents in the nightlife district of Itaewon.

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Kim Jin-ho, a former intelligence officer at Seoul’s Yongsan district police station, received a suspended one-year sentence on similar charges. Kwang Yeong-seok, a lower-ranking officer at the Yongsan station, received a four-month deferred sentence after being found guilty of destroying files under Kim’s instruction.

The Democratic Party’s floor leader, Hong Ihk-pyo, center, delivers a speech at a rally protesting the government’s handling of the 2022 Itaewon crowd-crush disaster in front of the main building of the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 1, 2024. (Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A civic group representing victims’ families issued a statement welcoming the ruling, which they said recognized “criminal liability of public officials for failing to anticipate and prepare for the huge crowd leading up to the tragedy, and for covering up and downplaying information about the tragedy after it happened.”

The group also criticized South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for vetoing last month a bill passed by the opposition-controlled parliament to appoint a special investigator to lead an independent investigation into the accident. Following a 74-day investigation into the crowd crush, a special investigation team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and municipal officials in Yongsan district failed to plan effective crowd control measures despite anticipating huge crowds.

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Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police assigned 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush.

Police also ignored hotline calls placed by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly. Officials also botched their response before people began getting crushed in an alley near Hamilton Hotel, and failed to establish control over the site and allow paramedics to reach the injured in time.

Some experts have called the crush a “manmade disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways.

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