Tunisian smuggler was forced to captain migrant boat at gunpoint, brother says

Brother of Tunisian man accused of piloting vessel that killed more than 700 people says 27-year-old was forced by smuggle

Mohammed Ali Malek (right) sitting in a white boiler suit next to a migrant as 24 bodies are transferred onto hearses in Malta. (Photo: Ray Attard)
Mohammed Ali Malek (right) sitting in a white boiler suit next to a migrant as 24 bodies are transferred onto hearses in Malta. (Photo: Ray Attard)

The Tunisian man accused of piloting a migrant boat that sank off Libya, killing more than 700 people, is himself a migrant who was forced at gunpoint to captain the ship because of his experience as a fisherman, his brother told Reuters.

Italian authorities say Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, was “drunk” and had been smoking cannabis while sterring the rickety boat carrying over 800 people. The second man arrested on suspicion of smuggling the asylum-seekers has been identified as Syrian Mahmud Bikhit, 25.

When Malek, 27, saw the Portuguese merchant vessel King Jacob approaching he steered closer to the vessel in an attempt to hide the ship. He however steered too close, colliding with the merchant vessel.

Meanwhile, the migrants had shifted on the side of the boat facing the merchant vessel and, following the collision, the rickety boat overturned and sank, taking with it the lives of men, women and children that were trapped below deck.

However, the man’s brother told Reuters the Tunisian's real name was Nourredine Mahjoub and he had first travelled clandestinely to Europe five years ago, spending time in Italy and France before being deported. He had recently returned to Libya seeking work.

"My brother was recruited by Libyans to work in a cafe in Libya a few weeks ago, but afterwards he was forced under threat by smugglers to pilot the voyage because he knows a little about the sea and worked with our father fishing," the brother, Makrem Mahjoub said.

Reuters also said that a few days earlier, his brother had been threatened by men with Kalashnikovs and ordered to pilot the ship.

Italian prosecutors have requested that the Tunisian face kidnapping charges in addition to multiple counts of homicide, causing a shipwreck and facilitating clandestine immigration.An Italian judge on Friday ordered that he should remain in custody while his lawyer insisted that he was a migrant like any other.

The tragedy is believed to have occurred at around 7pm on 18 April. Other merchant vessels were diverted to the area by the Italian and Maltese rescue coordination centres to assist the migrants. The Italian coastguard vessel Bruno Gregoretti reached the site at around 2am and managed to save two survivors, captain Gianluigi Bove said.

28 people were saved in all, among them the two human traffickers. 24 bodies were recovered and brought to Malta. The unknown migrants were laid to rest in an interfaith ceremony on Thursday.

According to the UNHCR, the tragedy – which has claimed the lives of some 700 migrants – was “the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean we have ever recorded”.

The UNHCR said 1,300 deaths were reported in April alone, making it the deadliest month on record.

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