A judge in Rome has indicted two high-ranking Italian officials for their alleged role in the deaths of hundreds of refugees who tried to reach Italy by boat.
Some 268 people, including at least 60 children, died in the Mediterranean Sea on October 11, 2013, after Italian and Maltese authorities allegedly waited hours to respond to emergency calls as their vessel slowly sank.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The disaster was one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks since Europe’s asylum-seeker crisis began in 2011.
Nearly six years after the disaster, Leopoldo Manna of the Italian coastguard and Luca Licciardi of its navy face multiple charges of manslaughter and negligence.
The men’s trial is the most prominent active case in which Italian courts seek to find out who is responsible for the deaths of refugees who try to reach Italy by sea.
The trial will establish whether the two officials delayed launching rescue operations and whether any delays caused the deaths of the passengers.
“No trial is ever going to bring the dead back to life,” Arturo Salerni, the lawyer of the victims’ relatives, told Al Jazeera.
“But for the families, reconstructing those terrible hours in which the boat took in water and their calls went unanswered is a form of justice.”
He said the victims’ families hoped to see punishment for the two officials and reparations for their loss.
Luca Ciaglia, the lawyer who defends Manna, called the shipwreck a “huge tragedy” and said Malta was responsible for it because Maltese authorities were in charge of rescue operations.
“We maintain that Malta made mistakes and sent wrong and contradictory communications to Italy,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It made it impossible for Italian authorities to assess how dangerous the situation was. Italian authorities did what they were asked to do [by Maltese authorities].”
He pointed out the government of Malta is not seeking to establish if their officials were responsible for the tragedy.
According to court documents seen by Al Jazeera, hundreds of people – mostly believed to be Syrians fleeing war and persecution in their country of origin – had left Libya on a boat in the night of October 10, 2013.
Their boat started taking in water after a Libyan patrol vessel fired shots at them, hitting the hull.
The migrants started calling the Italian and Maltese coastguard shortly after 12pm, and Malta took control of the rescue operations, but rescue operations arrived on the scene at around 5pm.
Spotlight on migrant crisis
The trial could last many months and both parties hope it will shine a light on practices around rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.
“I hope the trial shines a light on how the thousands and thousands of deaths in recent years in a highly monitored part of the sea were not a coincidence,” said Salerni.
He said the case is an example of how countries in southern Europe have failed to intervene to rescue boats in distress and prevent deadly shipwrecks.
According to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), at least 19,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. At least 15,000 perished trying to reach Italy.
The trial will take place in Rome starting on December 3.