The criminal trial of a man accused of being the captain of an illegal migrant ship that capsized last year, killing up to 800 people, started on Tuesday.
The trial is being conducted in the Sicilian city of Catania, and the man allegedly played a lead role in one of history’s worst Mediterranean migrant tragedies.
Mohammed Ali Malek, a Tunisian who was 27 years-old at the time, was allegedly in command of an overcrowded, 20-meter (66 foot) fishing vessel which capsized shortly before midnight on April 18 last year. Malek was among the 28 survivors. Around 800 people, the precise number is unknown, died because they were locked in the ship’s hull.
Malek is accused of causing the collision that occurred between the fishing vessel and a Portuguese container/general cargo ship, King Jacob. The King Jacob was attempting to rescue those on board the fishing vessel.
Shortly after the tragedy, Sicilian prosecutors absolved the merchant vessel’s crew of any responsibility. They said the collision had been caused by steering mistakes made by the fishing vessel’s captain and the panicked movements of the migrants on board.
According to The Guardian, a lawyer for Malek, Massimo Ferrante, has stated that the black box from the King Jacob has been erased and so this information about final moments before the collision will not be available to the court.
Last year Ferrante suggested that Malek was a scapegoat and had been accused of commanding the vessel by other survivors simply because he had pale skin.
Malek’s brother, Makrem Mahjoub, told Reuters last year that Malek had been forced to take command of the vessel by armed human traffickers because of his experience as a fisherman.
There were people from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal on board, kept on three different levels in the vessel.
The Italian Navy later discovered the wreck of the vessel 85 miles north east of Libya at a depth of approximately 375 meters (1,230 feet).
Malek is expected to face other survivors as part of the trial.
The charity Human Rights at Sea is pressing from more prosecutions such as this one. “The issue of impunity from investigation and prosecution for human rights violations and abuses is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time,” says Founder, David Hammond. “The loss of life in the Mediterranean has highlighted the need for rigorous pursuance of criminal prosecutions to act as a deterrence and hold individuals accountable.
“Coastal States and the international community must step up and continue their political and legal actions in upholding the rule of law at sea.”