Posted on December 16, 2016

Tunisian and Syrian Nationals Jailed in Italy Over 700 Migrant Drownings

Andrea Vogt, Telegraph, December 14, 2016

An Italy court on Tuesday convicted the captain of a migrant boat as responsible for a 2015 boat sinking that killed more than 700 people.

Tunisian captain Mohammed Ali Malek, 28, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for multiple manslaughter, human trafficking and causing the disaster.

His first mate, Syrian national Mahmoud Bikhit, 26, was ordered to serve five years for facilitating illegal immigration.

Both men were also ordered to pay €9 million (£7.5m) each in compensation by judges in the Sicilian port of Catania.

The men claimed they had been forced to steer the boat by the real traffickers, who they said died in the accident.

But prosecutors argued their version of events conflicted with witness testimony from other survivors questioned in the case.

“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.

The 90-foot fishing boat left Libya with most of its passengers from sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh crammed below deck.

After sending out a distress call, the boat accidentally rammed into a Portuguese cargo ship that was trying to come to its aid.

The collision and panic shifted the weight of passengers to one side, causing the vessel to overturn and sink rapidly in the night between April 18-19.

The two men were among 28 survivors.

Carmelo Zuccaro, the prosecutor, hailed the verdict as an important precedent for establishing Italy’s jurisdiction to prosecute illegal immigration cases that happen in international waters.

Italian forensic scientists spent months working on the grisly task of counting the victims and taking DNA samples from what little was left of the passengers’ remains, which had been underwater for more than a year while the Italian government coordinated the ship’s salvage.

An all-Italian team of private contractors successfully brought the vessel 370 metres to the surface last summer using custom-built lifting system. Salvage workers and divers on site for the first visual inspection discovered decomposing bodies packed into every corner of the vessel. Most of the remains were collected by authorities before the boat was towed back to Sicily, where it remains today.

More than 12,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean since the migrant crisis intensified in 2013.

Italy recently surpassed Greece for the number of migrant arrivals this year, with more than 175,000 brought to shore by EU and Italian navy patrols after being rescued at sea.