By Antonio Parrinello
CATANIA, Sicily (Reuters) - A Tunisian man accused of being the captain of a migrant boat that sank killing almost 700 people was found guilty of multiple manslaughter and people-smuggling on Tuesday and sentenced to 18 years in jail.
Only 28 people survived the disaster in April last year, when the small fishing boat capsized off the coast of Libya, with hundreds trapped in the hold.
Mohammed Ali Malek, 28, was one of those rescued and denied being the captain, saying he had paid for passage like everyone else, but a court in the city of Catania dismissed his defense.
The court also sentenced 26-year-old Syrian Mahmud Bikhit to five years in prison on charges of people-smuggling. Survivors said Bikhit had been Malek's cabin boy. He had denied any wrongdoing.
Both men were also handed fines of nine million euros ($9.5 million). Their lawyers said they would appeal the convictions.
"We think we have some strong arguments and we will try and work on some of the weaker points of our defense," said Massimo Ferrante, representing Malek.
Outrage over the incident prompted European Union leaders to bolster its own search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean days after the boat went down.
In the past three years, roughly half a million boat migrants have arrived on Italian shores and almost 12,000 have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Prosecutors had told the court that 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 vessel to collide with a Portuguese merchant ship that was coming to its aid.
As passengers rushed away from the side of the boat which had struck the ship, it capsized and sank within minutes.
State prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro said in a statement that the case showed Italy had the right to press smuggling charges over incidents in international waters.
The Italian justice system got involved this time because the survivors were brought to Italy. Italy's navy raised the boat in June and 675 bodies were recovered.
Earlier this year another migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean killing around 500 people, with the survivors taken to Greece. A Reuters investigation found that no official body, national or multinational, has held anyone to account for the deaths or even opened an inquiry.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Philip Pullella and Andrew Roche)