CATANIA, ITALY: The Tunisian captain of a migrant boat in which 800 people are feared to have drowned is set to be charged with causing the Mediterranean’s deadliest disaster in decades.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said Tuesday they believed Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, was responsible for steering mistakes and the reckless overcrowding which led to the horrifying shipwreck off Libya on Sunday.
He will appear before a judge on Friday along with crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, who was also arrested in a probe into a catastrophe that has evoked chilling comparisons with the slave trade, and allegations of callous disregard on the part of European governments.
The captain was questioned by investigators Tuesday after being arrested on suspicion of culpable homicide, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration. Bikhit faces potential charges on the latter count.
Hundreds of the victims, including an unknown number of children, will have died in hellish circumstances having been locked in the hold or the middle deck of the 20-meter (66-foot) boat which keeled over in pitch darkness after colliding with a Portuguese container ship answering its distress call.
The Catania prosecutors said the collision had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the hundreds of passengers.
“On the basis of what has emerged, no blame can be accorded to the crew of the merchant ship which came to rescue and in no way contributed to the fatal event,” they said in a statement.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has described the traffickers who packed their human cargo into the boat as akin to 18th-century slave traders.
Prosecutors said the survivors had told them how they had been held for up to a month in disused factories in Libya before being packed onto the boat.
One man was beaten severely with sticks as punishment from moving away from the group to answer the call of nature, according to a survivor’s statement.
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the horror at sea had been produced by a “monumental failure of compassion” on the part of European governments who are now under intense pressure to address the humanitarian crisis on their southern shores.
Two days before Europe’s leaders gather for an emergency summit to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called for a show of “financial solidarity” towards the countries bearing the brunt of the drama.
Mere “compassionate rhetoric” was not enough, he said during a visit to Austria, whose Chancellor Werner Faymann would like to see massive refugee camps built in North Africa to shelter would-be migrants and refugees.
The first of the 27 survivors who disembarked in Sicily in the early hours did so in a wheelchair. All of them were deeply traumatized, said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“They are exhausted, they have nothing left,” she said. “They are in a state of shock, they look completely lost.”
Most of the survivors and the victims appear to have been young men but there were also several children aged between 10 and 12, she added.
“We have not yet been able to ask them about this but it seems certain that many of them will have had friends and family who were lost in the wreck.”