Italy: Human Trafficker Who Caused Shipwreck Gets 18 Years

A court in Italy has sentenced the human trafficker who helped cause the catastrophic 2013 shipwreck near Lampedusa in which 366 migrants lost their lives.

The Mediterannean SeaAccording to Reuters, Khaled Bensalem was handed an 18-year sentence at a court in Agrigento, Sicily, for multiple manslaughter and aiding illegal immigration.

The 36-year-old Tunisian's sentence was reportedly cut by a third from the maximum penalty since he opted for a fast-track trial that offers reduced sentences for defendants who plead guilty.

On Oct. 3, 2013, Bensalem captained a ship that, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, departed from Libya carrying 500 people, mostly Eritrean, across the Mediterranean.

When the motor broke down near the Italian coast, passengers set clothing and blankets alight to attract attention.

However, according to local news portal Agrigento Notizie, the court found that Bensalem was the one who instigated the lighting of fires, which led to the ship sinking.

In an interview for Italian news programme TG2, Bensalem can be seen admitting to human trafficking and claiming responsibility for what happened.

He says, however, that he burned his shirt only after a boat ignored calls for help.

The 2013 shipwreck prompted Italy to initiate the search-and-rescue mission Mare Nostrum that was controversially discontinued last year.

The Guardian reports that Italy's president at the time, Giorgio Napolitano, called the shipwreck a "slaughter of innocents". 

The Mediterannean Sea is still extensively used by migrants and human traffickers. According to a UNHCR report released Wednesday, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to arrive in Europe in the first half of 2015 – an 83 per cent increase on the same period last year. The numbers are expected to continue to grow because of conflict and resource poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.

It also mentions the Apr. 18 shipwreck that hit headlines worldwide when at least 800 Syrian, Somalian and Eritrean migrants died – the largest refugee shipwreck catastrophe on record.