Monday 26 September 2016

Tunisian accused in migrant boat disaster appears in Italian court

Reuters World Service

Published 24/04/2015 | 10:16

Rescued migrants line up after disembarking from the Italian Coast Guard ship Fiorillo at Lampedusa (AP Photo/Mauro Buccarello)
Rescued migrants line up after disembarking from the Italian Coast Guard ship Fiorillo at Lampedusa (AP Photo/Mauro Buccarello)
Migrants celebrate aboard the Italian Coast Guard vessel Denaro after being rescued off the Libyan coast in this picture released yesterday. Photo: AP

The presumed captain of a migrant boat that sank off Libya with the loss of more than 700 lives appeared before an Italian judge on Friday after prosecutors asked that he be charged with homicide and people-trafficking.

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Mohammed Alì Malek, 27, has denied that he was in charge of the heavily overloaded fishing boat which capsized shortly before midnight on Saturday with hundreds of African and Bangladeshi migrants locked in its lower decks.

Read more here: EU mulls military moves to hit traffickers  

Prosecutors say survivors have identified him as the boat's captain but his lawyer, Massimo Ferrante, said late on Thursday Malek would tell judges that he was a passenger on the vessel.

Mohammed Ali Malek (C, rear), one of two survivors of Saturday's migrant boat disaster, later arrested on suspicion of people trafficking, is seen watching bodies of dead migrants being disembarked from the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti, at Senglea in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: Reuters
Mohammed Ali Malek (C, rear), one of two survivors of Saturday's migrant boat disaster, later arrested on suspicion of people trafficking, is seen watching bodies of dead migrants being disembarked from the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti, at Senglea in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: Reuters
Rescued migrants line up after disembarking from the Italian Navy vessel "Bettica" in the harbor of Augusta, Sicily, southern Italy. Photo: AP
Migrants stand on board of Italian Navy ship Chimera before to be disembarked in the southern harbour of Salerno. Photo: Reuters
An officer feeds a baby as rescued migrants disembark from an Italian Navy vessel in the harbor of Augusta, Sicily, Southern Italy. Photo: AP

Read more here: Tide of migrant misery  

The Tunisian showed little emotion as the preliminary hearing began in a court in the Sicilian city of Catania where he is likely to come face to face with a number of survivors who will be giving testimony.

A 25-year-old Syrian, Mahmud Bikhit, who prosecutors believe was a crew member, has denied involvement and accused Malek of being in charge of the vessel when it collided with a merchant ship coming to its aid and capsized.

Read more here: 'A stain on the conscience of our continent': EU ministers to discuss U-turn on search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean  

He may face charges of favouring clandestine immigration but not of multiple homicide.

Only 28 people survived the disaster, believed to be the heaviest loss of life on the Mediterranean in decades and which underlined the scale of the migrant crisis facing Europe.

Migrants stand on board Italian Navy ship Chimera before disembarking in the southern harbour of Salerno. Photo: Reuters
Migrants stand on board Italian Navy ship Chimera before disembarking in the southern harbour of Salerno. Photo: Reuters
Two hundred black body bags lined up on Brighton beach in East Sussex by campaigners highlighting Britain's "shameful" response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean
Rescued migrants disembark from an Italian navy vessel in the harbour of Augusta, Sicily (AP)
Migrants wait to disembark in the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo, Italy. (AP)
Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya lie on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: AP

The sea is one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty, with almost 40,000 people having arrived this year already.

Read more here: Bungled manoeuvre by ship's navigator sealed fates of 850 terrified migrants  

The heavy loss of life has also raised pressure for action by EU countries, who pledged this week to step up search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean.

After interviewing the survivors, prosecutors have concluded that more than 750 people are likely to have been aboard the 20-metre-long fishing boat, but with most locked in the hold and lower deck, only 24 bodies have been recovered.

Read more here: Migrant death toll may reach 30,000 this year - UN  

They have also requested that Malek face kidnapping charges in addition to multiple counts of homicide, causing a shipwreck and facilitating clandestine immigration.

Friday's hearing is an "incidente probatorio", a preliminary hearing intended to allow judges to establish the basic facts of a case before a decision is taken on whether to file charges.

Reuters

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