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South Korean police officers stand guard at the scene in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Seoul: A South Korean court sentenced two former senior police officers Wednesday for destroying evidence linked to Seoul's deadly 2022 Halloween crush - the first police officials to be sentenced over the disaster.

Tens of thousands of people - mostly in their 20s and 30s - had been out on October 29, 2022, to enjoy the first post-pandemic holiday celebrations in the popular Itaewon nightlife district.

But the night turned deadly when people poured into a narrow, sloping alleyway between bars and clubs, the weight of their bodies and a lack of effective crowd control leading to nearly 160 people being crushed to death.

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The two former police officers were handed jail time for ordering in the aftermath of the disaster the deletion of four internal police reports which had identified in advance safety concerns over possible overcrowding in the area.

The Seoul Western District Court sentenced Park Sung-min, a former senior intelligence officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, to 1.5 years in prison, and Kim Jin-ho, a former intelligence officer at the Yongsan Police Station to one year in prison, suspended for three years.

"The defendants should have actively cooperated with the investigation by preserving existing data, but on the contrary, they deleted or arbitrarily destroyed internal reports written prior to the accident and destroyed evidence," the court said.

The court added that "harsh punishment" was inevitable as they "made it difficult to determine the substantial truth by minimising and concealing the responsibility of the police."

Park and Kim are the first police officers to be convicted over the Itaewon disaster.

In January, Kim Kwang-ho, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, was charged with professional negligence.

District level officials have been prosecuted over the disaster, but no high-ranking members of government resigned or have faced prosecution, despite criticism from victims' families over a lack of accountability.

South Korea's rapid transformation from a war-torn country to Asia's fourth-largest economy and a global cultural powerhouse is a source of national pride.

But a series of preventable disasters - such as the 2022 crush and the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking that killed 304 people - has shaken public confidence in authorities.