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By Silvia Ognibene
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors on Monday launched a case to put officers of the Costa Concordia on trial for the accident in which the giant cruise ship ran aground and capsized off the coast of Tuscany last year, killing 32 people.
Prosecutors argued at a preliminary hearing that ex-captain Francesco Schettino should be tried on charges including manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship in the accident. If convicted, Schettino could face 20 years in jail.
The luxury liner was carrying over 4,000 passengers and crew when it came too close to shore in January 2012, hitting a rock that tore a gash in its hull and caused it to tip over onto its side, half submerged. It is still there off the island of Giglio, awaiting salvage.
The former captain's lawyer said Schettino did not cause the crash or abandon ship. "This was an accident at work. You cannot criminalise a man because he had an accident while working," Francesco Pepe told reporters during a break in the hearing.
The court in Grosseto in Tuscany, close to where the accident took place, will also consider whether five other officers should face charges ranging from manslaughter to failure to cooperate with marine authorities.
Those named by prosecutors, who hope a criminal case will establish responsibility for the accident, are bridge officers Ciro Ambrosio and Silvia Coronica, helmsman Jacob Rusli, cabin services manager Manrico Giampedroni and the fleet crisis coordinator, Roberto Ferrarini.
Costa's lawyer, Marco De Luca, argued that the firm should be allowed to seek damages for the loss of the cruise liner, a position opposed by lawyers representing victims of the crash.
"Apart from the victims, Costa is the one that suffered the most damage. We lost a 500-million-euro (427 million pounds) ship," De Luca told the Grosseto court.
Hearings are scheduled up to April 24, meaning it will be at least a week before Judge Pietro Molino can issue a decision.
Costa Cruises, the unit of Carnival Corp that owned and operated the Concordia, accepted a 1-million-euro fine last week that exempted it from a criminal trial - but not from private lawsuits.
Lawyers for the local Giglio government said it would be seeking at least 80 million euros in damages from the company.
Schettino was held up to ridicule after investigators of the accident said he brought the 290-metre-long Concordia too close to shore in a manoeuvre meant to "salute" Giglio island, and then left his ship before the evacuation was complete.
A coastguard's telephoned order to the captain, "Get back on board, damn it!" became a catch phrase in Italy after the accident prompted a bout of national soul-searching over responsibility and leadership during times of crisis.
(Writing by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Mark Heinrich)