A Tunisian people smuggler has been sentenced to 18 years in jail after being found guilty of causing the deaths of 700 migrants.
Italian prosecutors argued that Mohammed Ali Malek was responsible for the worst maritime accident in the Mediterranean since the Second World War, during which a people smugglers’ fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast in April last year, trapping those on board beneath the ship’s hull.
The severely overloaded boat sank after hitting a merchant ship that had come to its rescue.
A court in Sicily convicted Malek on multiple counts of manslaughter, fining him €9 million as well as handing down the lengthy prison term. Mahmud Bikhit, his alleged shipmate, was jailed for five years and fined a similar amount after being found guilty of facilitating illegal immigration.
Malek has denied being the boat’s captain, arguing that he had paid people traffickers for passage to Europe like everybody else on board. Bikhit also denied any wrongdoing. Survivors gave evidence to the contrary, telling investigators that both men were involved in captaining the ship.
“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 is reported to have said before the verdict was handed down.
“It’s the truth. I’ve always told the truth. Just as I immediately gave [authorities] my real name, and told them I was a passenger.”
Migrants who survived the tragedy told police that Malek’s lack of sailing skills caused the boat they were travelling on to collide with another vessel and capsize.
The majority of the asylum seekers who lost their lives in the accident, which prompted the EU to reassess its response to the developing migrant crisis, where from African countries such as Ethiopia, Gambia, Mali and Senegal.
Malek and Bikhit were among only 28 passengers to survive the disaster.
One 16-year-old survivor from Somalia told investigators: “While getting onto the boat I heard the smugglers say that they were going to try to get 1,200 on to the boat and that’s why they beat us to get us onto the boat.
“But they stopped at 800 because it was full – we couldn’t even move. There was no food or water, the people that were put below were locked underneath.”
The convictions come a day after the Associated Press reported that authorities in Italy are having trouble distinguishing between migrants and people smugglers in some cases, as traffickers are forcing selected asylum seekers to help them facilitate crossings of the Mediterranean at gunpoint.
According to AP, smugglers are increasingly demanding that migrants man the unseaworthy boats they send across the water to Europe from Turkey and Northern Africa.