VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Europe buried the dead of the Mediterranean's worst-ever migrant disaster Thursday as prosecutors revealed details of their fateful journey and the suspected smuggler insisted he was a paying passenger like everyone else.
Two dozen caskets containing the only bodies recovered from the weekend capsizing that left an estimated 800 dead were laid out for a memorial service on the grounds of Malta's main hospital. They were later buried at the island nation's largest cemetery.
"We mourn them, because irrespective of our creed, nationality, race, we know that they are our fellow human beings," Gozo Bishop Mario Grech said during the service, which included Christian and Muslim prayers and was punctuated by the wails of members of Malta's African community.
None of the bodies was identified: One casket had "No. 132" scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it.
"All are brothers before God," Imam Mohammed El Sadi said at the service. "All people are migrants and their life was a journey."
Malta's president and prime minister, Italy's interior minister and the EU's migration commissioner attended.
Catania prosecutors have accused the suspected captain, Mohammad Ali Malek, 27, from Tunisia, of inadvertently ramming the overloaded fishing boat into the Portuguese-flagged cargo ship King Jacob that had come to its rescue, destabilizing it.
After three collisions, the boat eventually flipped after migrants then rushed to one side trying to get off. Only 28 people survived.
Malek's attorney, Massimo Ferrante, denied his client was responsible, saying there remained much to clarify about what exactly transpired and that it was dark. He denied reports that Malek had been drinking or using drugs.
"He says he was like all the others, a migrant on board the fishing boat and that he paid a sum of money for the trip to the Italian coast," Ferrante said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ferrante acknowledged that multiple survivors had identified Malek as the captain, and that a suspected crew mate, Mahmud Bikhit, a 25-year-old Syrian, had put the blame on him.
"This naturally makes the defense a lot more delicate, but not impossible," Ferrante said.
Catania prosecutors, meanwhile, said survivors had painted a clearer picture of the violent days and hours before the migrant ship set off. They said up to 1,200 migrants had been housed in a warehouse on the outskirts of Tripoli for up to a month before the trip, and that some were beaten with clubs — including fatally — if they didn't obey orders.
On the day of the crossing, prosecutors said one young boy was killed during the transport to the fishing ship because he stood up without permission on the rubber dinghy and was thrown overboard.
In a statement, prosecutors said the migrants paid between 1,000 euros ($1,075) and 7,000 euros ($7,500) for the trip. One survivor reported having seen money change hands between a trafficker and a Libyan police official prior to departure.
Andrea Rosa reported from Catania, Sicily. Trisha Thomas contributed from Catania.