ROME – A judge in Sicily on Tuesday convicted a ship captain and crew mate in the April 2015 sinking off Libya that left 700 people dead in the Mediterranean’s worst-known migrant disaster.
The Tunisian captain, Mohammad Ali Malek, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined 9 million euros ($9.5 million). He was convicted of multiple manslaughter counts. His Syrian crewmate, Mahmud Bikhit, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined 9 million euros for facilitating illegal immigration.
Prosecutors had accused Malek of inadvertently ramming the overloaded fishing boat he was captaining into a cargo ship that had come to its rescue on April 18, 2015. The boat flipped after passengers rushed to one side, trying to get off.
Only 28 survived.
Earlier this year, the Italian Navy brought the wreck to the surface and recovered some 700 bodies, many still trapped in the hull. Forensic pathologists have been working ever since to try to identify them, so the remains can be returned to their families.
The wreck prompted the European Union to beef up its Mediterranean rescue flotilla. But the waves of migrants have continued: Some 176,678 people arrived in Italy by sea in 2016, more than in either 2014 or 2015, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
The deaths have continued as well: IOM counts 4,244 known deaths in the Libya-Italy smuggling route during 2016, compared to 2,868 last year.
Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro hailed the verdict after the fast-track trial.
In a statement, Zuccaro said it reinforced two important legal principles: affirming Italian jurisdiction for illegal immigration cases that occur in international waters, and considering rescued migrants as victims, not suspects.