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Cruise ship disaster pre-trial hearings due in Italy

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The deadly Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster returns to court in Italy on Monday with the start of a long series of indictment hearings against six suspects including captain Francesco Schettino.

Among the five crew members accused by prosecutors is the luxury liner's Indonesian helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, suspected of contributing to the tragedy by misunderstanding a command moments before the crash

Thirty-two people lost their lives in the accident, including a five-year-old girl.

Rusli Bin's whereabouts are not known but he has been assigned a lawyer and the accusations against him will be heard in absentia.

Schettino is expected to attend.

The sixth accused is Roberto Ferrarini, the head of ship owner Costa Crociere's crisis unit who is suspected of delaying rescue operations which prosecutors say was the main cause of loss of life.

The Costa Concordia crashed at high speed into the Tuscan island of Giglio on the night of January 13 with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board as Schettino attempted a risky "salute" manoeuvre.

The giant liner veered sharply and then keeled over in shallow water.

Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated with the ship's lifeboats but hundreds were forced to jump into the sea and swim ashore in the dark.

The court has scheduled 40 pre-trial hearings lasting into July before it rules on whether a trial should go ahead and when it will take place.

The hearings are to start at 0730 GMT on Monday.

Survivors are allowed to attend the hearings, where prosecutors and defence lawyers will tackle some of the key issues in the expected trial.

The case is being heard in Grosseto, the city nearest to the site of the tragedy where the ship still lies on its side as an unprecedented salvage operation prepares to right it, refloat it and tow it away.

Dozens of survivors in civil courts are suing Costa Crociere, the biggest cruise operator in Europe and a subsidiary of the US-based giant Carnival Corp.

Most of the survivors who did not suffer injuries or lose loved ones have accepted compensation from Costa of around 11,000 euros ($14,000) each.

In terms of the criminal proceedings, the company negotiated a controversial plea bargain with the court last week in which it accepted some responsibility as the employer of the suspects and paid a one million euro fine.

Carnival's revenues in the first quarter of 2013 were $3.6 billion.

Thirty lawyers working for survivors have said they will issue a joint plea on Monday for prosecutors to investigate the boards of Costa Crociere and Carnival, which is the world's biggest cruise company and is registered in Florida.

"The idea is that prosecutors in Grosseto should widen their investigation to the companies for their role in the crimes that the current suspects are accused of," said Cesare Bulgheroni, one of the lawyers taking part in the protest.

Bulgheroni alleged that the company had poorly-trained personnel on board and delayed the evacuation of the ship -- all accusations that have been denied by Costa Crociere.

Codacons, a consumer association which is suing Costa Crociere on behalf of some survivors, has published a report that showed key equipment on board apparently malfunctioned including sealed doors.

Bruno Neri, a professor called by Codacons to carry out the technical analysis, said: "Schettino has been turned into a scapegoat".

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130414/cruise-ship-disaster-pre-trial-hearings-due-italy