Migrant Boat Captain Remanded in Custody
An Italian judge has ordered that the presumed captain of a migrant boat that sank with the loss of more than 700 lives should remain in custody after prosecutors asked for him to be charged with multiple homicide and people-trafficking.
Mohammed Alì Malek, 27, denies that he was in charge of the heavily overloaded fishing boat that capsized off Libya late on Saturday with hundreds of African and Bangladeshi migrants locked in its lower decks.
"He says he's a migrant like all the others, and he paid his fare to go on the boat," his lawyer, Massimo Ferrante, said outside the courtroom.
However Catania chief prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said the judge had ordered both Malek and 25 year-old Syrian Mahmud Bikhit, who is accused of being a member of the crew, to be detained in custody.
Both men were arrested on Monday night when they arrived in Sicily with other survivors of the shipwreck, who identified the two to Italian police.
The Tunisian showed little emotion as the preliminary hearing began behind closed doors in a court in the Sicilian city of Catania where he will come face to face with a number of survivors who will be giving testimony.
Prosecutors say he mishandled the fishing boat and caused it to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship which was coming to its assistance. As the passengers rushed away from the side of the boat which had struck the merchant ship, King Jacob, the grossly overloaded vessel capsized and sank within minutes.
They have also heard testimony from witnesses who said they were beaten and abused by club-wielding traffickers before they were embarked.
The survivors indicated that Malek had been in control of the 20-metre-long vessel, assisted by Bikhit and that they kept in contact by Thuraya satellite telephone with two associates in Libya, identified as Jaafar and Has, who had managed the voyage.
Bikhit's lawyer, Giuseppe Russo, said his client accused Malek of being in charge of the vessel but denies being a crew member and said he was on the ship as a migrant.
Prosecutors are not asking for homicide charges to be brought against him but he may face charges of favoring clandestine immigration.
Only 28 people survived the disaster, believed to be the heaviest loss of life on the Mediterranean in decades.
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.
The scale of the disaster 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.
Prosecution documents show that one survivor said the locked doors on the lower deck had been watched by two Somali crew members, both of whom appeared to have drowned and Salvi said none of the other survivors was being investigated.
Prosecutors have requested that Malek face kidnapping charges in addition to multiple counts of homicide, causing a shipwreck and facilitating clandestine immigration.
Friday's preliminary hearing was intended to allow judges to establish the basic facts before a decision is taken on whether to file charges and take the case to trial.
EU STEPS UP ACTION
British and German warships made ready to sail for waters off Libya as Europe ramps up rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Yet hours after European Union leaders agreed in Brussels on Thursday to treble funding for EU maritime missions and pledged more ships and aircraft, 14 clandestine migrants were killed when a train ploughed into dozens of Somalis and Afghans making their way in darkness along a rail track in a Macedonian gorge.
The incident highlighted the variety of routes that growing numbers are taking to escape war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and chance their luck in a wealthy region that offers, at best, a chilly welcome. EU governments remain deeply at odds over how to share out the care of those who make it.
Britain's helicopter-carrying flagship Bulwark, currently near Istanbul, will head for the area between Libya and Italy on Sunday, the government said. However, Prime Minister David Cameron, who faces a threat from anti-immigration populists as he seeks re-election in less than two weeks, stressed when he offered it on Thursday that few of those rescued would come to Britain.
Germany, favored destination for many migrants who make it to Europe, said on Friday it would have a frigate and a supply vessel in the area within days to comb the sea for refugees.