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Italian court issues 18-year sentence to captain in migrant shipwreck

© ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP | This file photo taken on April 20, 2015 shows two men, identified as Mohammed Ali Malek (2nd L), one of the survivors and understood to be the captain of the boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2016-12-13

A judge in Sicily has convicted a ship captain and crew member in the April 2015 sinking that left 700 people dead in one of the Mediterranean's worst migrant disasters.

The Tunisian captain, Mohammad Ali Malek, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined €9 million. He was convicted of multiple manslaughter counts. His Syrian crewmate, Mahmud Bikhit, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined €9 million after being convicted of facilitating illegal immigration.

Prosecutors accused Malek of inadvertently ramming the overloaded fishing boat into the cargo ship that had come to its rescue on April 18, 2015, destabilizing it. The boat sank after migrants rushed to one side. Only 28 people survived.

Forced to steer the ship

Malek claimed that the real captain died in the wreck and that he and Bikhit were simply migrants who were forced to steer the ship. He said he was being scapegoated by the other survivors because he is Tunisian. 

But survivors told investigators that Malek, who had lived in Italy in the past, was the captain. And that it was his lack of sailing skills that caused the deadly collision.

"I spent two years and six months in Italy and I have a young son with an Italian woman: I want to marry her and recognise the baby," Malek told the court in a plea before the verdict.

"It's the truth. I've always told the truth. Just as I immediately gave (police) my real name, and told them I was a passenger," he said.

Grisly task of raising boat

Some 700 bodies were recovered this year after Italy's navy had the grisly task of raising the boat’s wreckage from the seabed, in a salvage operation that cost €10 million. The government had promised to give the victims decent burials as a symbol of respect for all the migrants who have died trying to reach Europe's shores.

Italian firefighters' spokesman Luca Cari said the decomposing migrant bodies were found everywhere, from the well of the anchor chain to the tiny underfloor compartment where the bilge pump sits, to the engine room.

It was clear from their positions that many had fought to get out when the boat rolled.

Over 12,000 people are known to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean since the current migrant crisis began in 2013. Aid agencies say it is likely many more migrants disappeared without a trace after being abandoned on the high seas by traffickers.

The migrant departures have not stopped, despite the turn in the weather as winter sets in. A record number of 175,000 people have arrived on Italy's shores this year, with another 678 brought to Catania on Monday, including a newborn baby.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

 

Date created : 2016-12-13

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