CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian judge on Friday 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 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.
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 to one side, hoping to be rescued, the grossly overloaded vessel capsized and sank.
They have also heard testimony from witnesses who said they were beaten and abused by club-wielding traffickers before they were embarked.
Bikhit has accused Malek of being in charge of the vessel but he has denied 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.
However his lawyer, Giuseppe Russo, said that his client had not yet been clearly identified as the presumed crew member in charge of the ship’s motor. A witness in court on Friday spoke only of a “light skinned” man who checked the engine room.
“We still have to establish who this individual was who went down to check the engine room,” Russo said.
Salvi said there were probably other members of the crew but none of the survivors was being investigated, implying that any others had probably drowned.
Only 28 people survived the disaster, believed to be the heaviest loss of life on the Mediterranean in decades and which underlined the scale of the migrant crisis facing Europe.
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.
They have also 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.
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Catherine Evans and Sophie Walker