The man authorities say was the captain of a migrant boat that sank last weekend with the presumed loss of more than 700 lives appeared in court here Friday as prosecutors sought to charge him in connection with the tragedy.
Officials say Mohammed Alì Malek, 27, a Tunisian national, was the skipper of the converted fishing boat when it capsized late Saturday in waters between Libya and Italy. The Tunisian national denies being in charge and says he was one of the migrants, his lawyer has told the local media.
Authorities are seeking to charge Malek with multiple counts of homicide and facilitating illegal immigration. A preliminary hearing was held Friday.
Malek was among only 28 people who survived what officials have called the deadliest such incident in the Mediterranean in years. Rickety smuggling ships packed with migrants seeking new lives regularly traverse the waters between North Africa and Europe.
Malek and another alleged crew member, Mahmud Bikhit, 25, a Syrian national, were arrested this week. Bikhit has also denied being part of the crew. Prosecutors say the information about the pair and their role in the disaster came from interviews with other survivors.
Only 24 bodies were recovered at sea from the doomed boat, authorities said. Most passengers were trapped below deck and went down with the ship, which sailed from Libya, according to Italian prosecutors.
The more than 700 presumed dead were mostly from Africa and Bangladesh, according to official accounts.
The tragedy prompted European leaders this week to pledge to bolster search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The European Union has come under scathing criticism from human-rights activists and others this week for having scaled down rescue missions last year. Some officials reasoned that a reduced search-and-rescue presence would prompt fewer people to attempt the hazardous crossing. But the estimated death toll this year of more than 1,700 migrants suggests that the flow of immigrants in the Mediterranean has not diminished.
In fact, boats filled with migrants continue to plow toward European shores. The goal of most migrants is to be rescued by Italian coastal authorities and released in Italy, gateway to Europe. Many plan to travel on to northern Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia, where the job market and social benefits are better than in Italy.
Meanwhile, an Italian Coast Guard vessel brought 84 new migrants ashore at the Catania port after they had been pulled from a foundering vessel in the Mediterranean. All appeared to be sub-Saharan Africans.