Reuters International

Mohammed Ali Malek is seen at Catania's tribunal, April 24, 2015. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

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ROME (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors on Tuesday demanded that the man they say captained a migrant boat that sank killing up to 800 people be sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of manslaughter and international people smuggling.

Only 28 people survived the disaster in April last year and hundreds of bodies are still trapped in the hull of the sunken fishing boat, which the Italian navy is trying to raise. It has already collected 118 bodies from the sea floor.

Outrage over the incident prompted European Union leaders to bolster its own search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean just days after the boat went down.

In the past two years, more than 320,000 boat migrants have arrived on Italian shores and an estimated 7,000 died in the Mediterranean as they sought to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Sicilian prosecutors Andrea Bonomo and Rocco Liguori urged a judge in the Catania court to convict 27-year-old Mohammed Ali Malek. The Tunisian says he was not the boat's captain and paid for passage like everyone else, according to his lawyer Massimo Ferrante.

The prosecutors also sought a six year jail term for 25-year-old Syrian Mahmud Bikhit, who survivors said was Ali Malek's cabin boy. Bikhit also denies any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors say Ali Malek mishandled the grossly overloaded fishing boat, which left from Darabli, Libya, carrying men, women and children from Algeria, Somalia, Egypt, Senegal, Zambia, Mali, Bangladesh and Ghana.

They say he caused the boat to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship that was coming to its aid.

As the passengers rushed away from the side of the boat which had struck the merchant ship, the vessel capsized and sank within minutes.

The defence will present their arguments in hearings scheduled for July 19 and Oct. 4.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Alison Williams)

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