A court in Italy has convicted a Tunisian man of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in one of the worst Mediterranean disasters since World War II.
Mohammed Ali Malek was sentenced in Catania, Sicily, to serve 18 years in prison for manslaughter, human trafficking, and causing a tragedy in which at least 700 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in April 2015.
Reports say that survivors told authorities that Malek was the captain of a vessel that sank and that his lack of sailing knowledge caused a deadly collision.
Before the verdict was announced, the Tunisian man, who had lived in Italy in the past, addressed the court.
"I spent two years and six months in Italy and I have a young son with an Italian woman: I want to marry her and recognize the baby," Malek said.
"It's the truth. I've always told the truth. Just as I immediately gave (police) my real name, and told them I was a passenger," he added.
Prosecutors previously said Malek, arrested under suspicion of multiple homicide, had mistakenly steered his severely overloaded boat on a collision course with a merchant ship that was coming to its rescue. The prosecutors absolved the merchant ship of any responsibility for the tragedy.
Only 28 passengers survived among the hundreds of mainly African and Bangladeshi migrants on board. Police quoted survivors giving death tolls that range from 400 to 950 in what appears to have been the worst disaster ever among migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe.
So few survived because most of the migrants on board, including women and children, had been locked in the hold and lower decks of the three-deck fishing boat, officials said.