Mediterranean migrants: Deadly capsize 'captain' in court

Mohammed Ali Malek in Catania court, Italy, on 24 April 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mohammed Ali Malek, the suspected captain of the capsized boat, appears in court

The man accused of captaining a boat that capsized off Libya with the loss of more than 750 lives has appeared in court on the Italian island of Sicily.

Prosecutors want to charge Mohammed Ali Malek, a 27-year-old Tunisian, with homicide and people-trafficking.

Mr Malek's lawyer says his client is keen to tell his story to prove his innocence to the court in Catania.

One of the 28 survivors has given nearly five hours of testimony. Three others are due to speak later.

Prosecutors say survivors identified Mr Malek as the captain of the boat who accidentally rammed the overloaded fishing boat into a merchant ship that had come to rescue it, last Sunday.

The boat capsized with hundreds of migrants allegedly locked in its lower decks and unable to get out.

The death toll is believed to be the highest from a single such incident.

At the scene: Paul Adams, BBC News, Catania

The young man accused of being the captain whose reckless actions may have caused the deaths of hundreds of migrants has not yet been formally charged.

But after four hours of testimony from one Gambian survivor, Mohammed Ali Malek's lawyer says his client is anxious to speak and clear his name.

For now, as he sits behind bars, the 27-year-old Tunisian is the face of a human trafficking phenomenon that EU leaders seem determined to combat.

But he is unlikely to be anything more than a small player in a huge, dirty business run by powerful Libyan militias and smugglers.

The Italian authorities have already arrested hundreds just like him, but the trade in human beings continues to grow.

Mr Malek's lawyer has told journalists that his client was a migrant on the boat, not a smuggler, and believes he is being accused because he "was the only one with a lighter skin" that survived the shipwreck.

Prosecutors want to bring charges of causing a shipwreck, multiple first degree homicides and being accomplice to clandestine immigration against Mr Malek.

They also accuse another crew member, a 25-year-old Syrian named Mahmud Bihit, of being an accomplice to clandestine immigration.

He is reported to be one of the survivors to identify his co-accused as the man captaining the boat.

Judges will decide at Friday's hearing whether to file formal charges.

The number of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has risen sharply in recent months.

More than 35,000 are thought to have crossed from Africa to Europe this year and some 1,750 have died while attempting the journey.

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