Presumed captain of wrecked Mediterranean migrant boat appears in Italian court

CATANIA (Reuters) - The presumed captain of a migrant boat that sank off Libya with the loss of more than 700 lives appeared before an Italian judge on Friday after prosecutors asked that he be charged with homicide and people-trafficking.

Mohammed Alì Malek, 27, has denied that he was in charge of the heavily overloaded fishing boat that capsized shortly before midnight on Saturday with hundreds of African and Bangladeshi migrants locked in its lower decks.

"He says he's a migrant like all the others and he paid his fare to go on the boat," his lawyer, Massimo Ferrante said outside the courtroom.

The Tunisian showed little emotion as the preliminary hearing began behind closed doors in a court in the Sicilian city of Catania where he will come face to face with a number of survivors who will be giving testimony.

A 25-year-old Syrian, Mahmud Bikhit, who prosecutors believe was a crew member, has accused Malek of being in charge of the vessel when it collided with a merchant ship coming to its aid and capsized.

Bikhit denied being a crew member and said he was a migrant passenger on the ship. Prosecutors are not asking for homicide charges to be brought against him but he may face charges of favouring clandestine immigration.

However his lawyer, Giuseppe Russo, said that his client had not yet been clearly identified as the presumed crew member in charge of the ship's motor. A witness in court on Friday spoke only of a "light skinned" man who checked the engine room.

"We still have to establish who this individual was who went down to check the engine room," Russo said.

He said the witness had said there were four crew members, all of whom were described as "light skinned" but two of these appear to have been engaged only in checking the level of the boat and it was not clear if they were among survivors.

Only 28 people survived the disaster, believed to be the heaviest loss of life on the Mediterranean in decades and which underlined the scale of the migrant crisis facing Europe.

The sea is one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty, with almost 40,000 people having arrived this year already.

The heavy loss of life has also raised pressure for action by EU countries, who pledged this week to step up search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean.

After interviewing the survivors, prosecutors have concluded that more than 750 people are likely to have been aboard the 20-metre-long fishing boat, but with most locked in the hold and lower deck, only 24 bodies have been recovered.

They have also requested that Malek face kidnapping charges in addition to multiple counts of homicide, causing a shipwreck and facilitating clandestine immigration.

Friday's hearing is an "incidente probatorio", a preliminary hearing intended to allow judges to establish the basic facts of a case before a decision is taken on whether to file charges and take the case to trial.