People Smugglers Dodge Kidnapping Charges

Migrants in Liferaft

Published May 19, 2015 10:24 AM by Reuters

Two smugglers arrested over the deaths of hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean's most deadly shipwreck in decades will not be charged with kidnapping because assertions migrants had been locked below deck had proved wrong, an Italian prosecutor said on Tuesday.

The two face homicide charges over the sinking of the 20-meter fishing boat last month that killed some 800 migrants and raised international alarm about attempts by thousands to flee across the Mediterranean in often ramshackle boats from Libya.

In initial testimony, one survivor had told prosecutors the doors to the lower deck had been blocked; but Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said further testimony and underwater video of the shipwreck showed that was not true.

"Many people were below deck, but they weren't locked in," Salvi told reporters at the Catania, Italy, courthouse.

Charges of kidnapping would therefore no longer be pressed against the captain, a Tunisian, and the Syrian crew member.

The Catania court on Monday confirmed the arrest of the two smugglers, who survivors said had been in charge of navigation, on charges of multiple homicide and people smuggling.

Prosecutors accuse the men of mishandling the boat and causing it to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship - the "King Jacob" - which was coming to its assistance.

As the passengers rushed away from the side of the boat that struck the merchant ship, the grossly overloaded vessel capsized and sank within minutes. Salvi said the King Jacob had been "cleared of any responsibility" for the disaster.

Video shot by an Italian navy submersible showed that many bodies remain inside the vessel, sources have told Reuters; but Salvi said on Tuesday he has no reason to request recovery of the vessel, which has been located in 375 meters (1,235 feet) of water some 135 km (85 miles) north of Libya.

Italy recovered the bodies of hundreds of migrants who drowned in October 2013 off the island of Lampedusa, but that was a much simpler operation because the shipwreck was in 30 meters of water and only 2 km from the coast.

Since the court will not order the recovery, it will be up to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to decide whether to undertake what would be an expensive and difficult operation. Earlier this month, Renzi said he would do all he could to recover the bodies.

Of the 24 bodies that have been recovered, only two have been identified, and the court has the probable names of two others. Twenty-eight, including the two alleged smugglers, survived.