A Sicilian court has acquitted Turab Ahmed Sheikh, a Pakistani married to a Maltese woman, of the murder of 283 illegal immigrants who drowned on Christmas Day in 1996 when their boat capsized after they were offloaded from another vessel, the Yioham.

Mr Shiekh was acquitted by a court in Syracuse earlier this month. The prosecution was asking for life imprisonment.

The Yioham tragedy made international headlines after an 18-metre Maltese-registered fishing launch, a former RAF search and rescue vessel, sank in rough seas. Those who died were mainly Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans. A Maltese is also suspected to have perished.

The Yioham's skipper, Youssef al-Hallal, a Lebanese national, and Mr Sheikh were sought by the Italian police in connection with the case. Mr al-Hallal was arrested in France but was never extradited to Italy.

Mr Sheikh has been waging legal battles over the case and insisted he had "no blood on his hands". He was extradited to Italy from Malta in October 2002 to face charges of involuntary homicide, shipwreck, conspiracy and human trafficking. In 2003, he was acquitted but he was later accused again of murder by Italian prosecutors.

In an interview with The Times in July 2003, he had argued that had he had his way, the tragedy would never have occurred.

Mr Sheikh admitted he was involved in a ring that often took people to Sicily from Malta. Sometimes they transferred them to Sicily from ships waiting off Sicily, as they meant to do with the Yioham.

A Greek ship owner, who is still on the run after the tragedy, had informed him and others that the Yioham, with some 500 illegal immigrants on board, would be off Sicily in the week before Christmas.

The Yioham had left Greece and taken the immigrants aboard from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Another ship, the Friendship, was also involved.

The immigrants were "booked" through sub-agents disguised as travel agents in India and Pakistan.

Mr Sheikh said in the interview that the launch that was going to be used had some problems. It was taking in water and the bilge pumps were not working properly.

The weather was very bad on Christmas Eve but, despite his protests, his colleagues decided the operation should go ahead as planned. Their plan was to abandon the launch after the immigrants disembarked and return to Malta in a powerboat. Although the powerboat owner did not want to take the risk either, two foreigners and a Maltese man involved in the operation wanted to go ahead.

The three eventually sailed out without him and they were getting about Lm10,000 each for the job.

Mr Sheikh said he was worried that something was about to go wrong because the weather was awful and he lost radio contact with his colleagues.

He heard about the tragedy on the news and later learnt that one of the three had survived as he boarded the Yioham. The other two, including the Maltese national, perished with the immigrants. He went to speak to their wives and they, in turn, informed the police.

Mr Sheikh said he did not blame the wives for reporting him and he had immediately told the police the whole story. He gave them the coordinates of where the boat was to meet the Yioham and these coordinates were later found on the Yioham. "I said the truth from the outset. No action could be taken against me in Malta about the incident as I had not broken any laws. The Italians later sought my extradition. Of the 13 people wanted about this case, I am the only one who has faced charges," he had said.

"I wanted to go to Italy to face the charges. Had I been guilty, I was ready to accept the punishment and start afresh after serving my sentence."

Mr Sheikh was assisted by lawyer Joe Giglio.

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