A Sicilian court has sentenced a Tunisian man to 18 years in prison for causing the death of 700 migrants while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in April 2015. Mohammed Ali Malek was found guilty of manslaughter and human trafficking alongside a Syrian man, Mahmoud Bikhit, who was handed a five-year jail term Thursday, according to BBC. Malek had denied being the captain of the ill-fated boat that sank off the Libyan coast after colliding with a rescue merchant vessel.
Authorities say the fishing boat was overcrowded, with the majority of passengers locked inside. Only 28 people survived the incident, among them two young Bangladeshis who participated in the court proceedings as civil plaintiffs.
In their statement, the prosecutors told the court that Malek was in charge of the cruise and that his control of the fishing vessel was “naïve, careless, and negligent.”
In his response, Malek argued that the fishing boat lost balance due to strong waves created by the rescue vessel’s propeller.
The sentence was delivered in a run-down courtroom in Catania where the judge was forced to read the short summary of her ruling standing due to limited space.
None of the victims family members were present when the ruling was delivered.
Most of the victims were from poor families from Mali, Gambia, and Ethiopia, and their family members were unable to afford to travel to Europe for the hearing.
Malek and Bikhit were also ordered to pay a fine of about $10 million to the families of the victims as compensation.
The dangerous trek across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe is often the last resort for many desperate Africans looking for better opportunities.
According to the United Nations, 2016 has been the deadliest year for migrants bound for Europe.
Since January, more than 3,800 people have died in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, William Spindler.
Libya is a popular jumping-off point for migrants seeking to sail into Europe. This has led to a sharp rise in the number of human trafficking networks operating in a country that is already submerged in a deadly civil war.