ROME, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- The captain of a fishing boat, packed with illegal migrants, who authorities say caused the deadliest Mediterranean shipwreck in history was convicted and sentenced to prison on Tuesday.
Mohammed Ali Malek was convicted on charges of manslaughter, human trafficking and causing the disaster. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
More than 700 people are believed to have died on April 13, 2015, when the fishing vessel -- which carried scores of migrants bound for Italy -- abruptly collided with a Portuguese freighter ship, which was coming to the captain's aid.
The freighter, the King Jacob, was headed toward the fishing vessel to lend assistance after it received an emergency call from Italian authorities.
The small fishing vessel was destroyed and sunk, causing hundreds to drown in the sea. It's the Mediterranean's deadliest known shipwreck. Only 28 survivors were saved.
According to investigators, Malek, 28, steered his boat into the freighter and caused the collision off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The exact death toll is unknown because most of those who drowned were undocumented immigrants traveling illegally from Libya to Italian shores -- part of the migrant crisis that's enveloped Europe in the last two years.
According to estimates, nearly 5,000 migrants have died this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and about 3,700 died last year.
Mahmud Bikhit, a Syrian national who served as Malek's mate on the boat, was also convicted on charges of aiding illegal immigration. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Malek's attorney said he plans to appeal the verdict and the sentence. Both men were also fined $9.5 million. Both have denied accusations that they were involved in human trafficking.
"I have been in Italy for two and a half years and I have a little son from an Italian [woman]. I want to marry her and [claim my son]. It's the truth," Malek told the court before Tuesday's verdict.
According to Malek, a citizen of Tunisia, his boat was thrust into the King Jacob by a large wave that was created in the sea by the freighter's large propellers.
"My client says he was a mere passenger," attorney Massimo Ferrante told The New York Times.
After the verdict, prosecutors said the case set two important precedents -- that traffickers who get into life-threatening situations can be criminally prosecuted after their rescue, and that migrants in such scenarios can be considered victims and avoid legal liability.