By Silvia Ognibene
GROSSETO, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian judge began hearing a request on Monday to send the former captain of the Costa Concordia and five other ship's officers to trial over the accident which sank the liner with the loss of 32 lives in January 2012.
Prosecutors are seeking to have the 52-year-old captain, Francesco Schettino, tried on charges including manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship.
Schettino, appeared in court in the Tuscan town of Grosseto wearing a grey suit and blue striped tie for the opening of the pre-trial hearings, which are expected to run until April 24.
If convicted, he could face 20 years in jail but his lawyer said the case should not go to trial.
"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.
Judge Pietro Molino will also consider whether five other officers should face charges ranging from manslaughter to failure to cooperate with marine authorities.
The luxury liner had just begun a Mediterranean cruise when it came too close to shore, hitting a rock that tore a gash in its hull and causing it to capsize in shallow waters just outside the port of Giglio.
Both Schettino and the ship's owners Costa Cruises were heavily criticised over both the accident and the chaotic night-time evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers and crew. Costa paid 1 million euros ($1.31 million) to settle potential criminal charges although the payment did not affect civil lawsuits.
The other people who could face trial are bridge officers Ciro Ambrosio and Silvia Coronica, helmsman Jacob Rusli, cabin services manager Manrico Giampedroni and the fleet crisis coordinator, Roberto Ferrarini.
Separately, lawyers for the local government in Giglio said it was seeking at least 80 million euros in damages from Costa.
A lawyer for the company, a unit of the world's largest cruise operator, Carnival Cruises, part of Carnival Corp, said it aimed to compensate parties that had suffered.
"We will not try to avoid our responsibilities to compensate those who genuinely suffered loss," Alessandro Carella said following Monday's hearing.
Another Costa lawyer, Marco De Luca, said the company 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 court.
Schettino was held up to ridicule after investigators of the accident said he brought the 290-metre-long (951-ft) 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 Robin Pomeroy)