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Judge bars consumer, environmental groups in Italian cruise ship inquiry

By Barbie Nadeau and Michael Martinez, CNN
March 3, 2012 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off Giglio on January 22.
The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off Giglio on January 22.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Judge in the Costa Concordia case admits Giglio island and a civil agency as injured parties
  • The captain and 7 more employees are being investigated
  • Skipper Francesco Schettino wasn't wearing his glasses, first officer told investigators
  • Schettino couldn't adjust instruments because he couldn't see, first officer says

Grossetto, Italy (CNN) -- A judge on Saturday barred environmental and consumer groups from participating in a criminal court investigation into the wreck of cruise liner Costa Concordia that killed at least 25 people, attorneys said.

But the judge allowed the island of Giglio, whose waters were where the ship ran aground in January, to remain as an injured party, said attorneys who participated in Saturday's closed court proceeding. Italy's civil protection agency was also deemed an injured party Saturday, attorneys said.

The injured parties can present evidence and request additional analysis of any element of the investigation, attorneys said.

Meanwhile, Prosecutor Francesco Varusio confirmed that ship captain Francesco Schettino is being investigated, with allegations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship, failing to report an accident to the coast guard, and destroying a natural habitat against him. Giglio is a protected park.

His first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, and six other officers both on the ship and from the firm Costa in Genova are under investigation on allegations including manslaughter, shipwreck and failure to report the accident, Varusio told CNN.

Ambrosio's attorney, Salvatore Catalano, provided CNN with a copy of a court transcript of the interrogation of Ambrosio, in which he tells prosecutors that captain Schettino wasn't wearing his glasses when he set the parameters on the radar system.

Ambrosio also told the prosecutors that during the voyage, Schettino asked Ambrosio several times to adjust ship instruments because he couldn't see, the transcript says. Schettino was in command of the ship at the time of the accident, Ambrosio told prosecutors, according to the transcript.

"Schettino was in denial about the gravity of the situation," Ambrosio says in the transcript. "He asked us not to tell the coast guard how serious the situation was.

"He didn't want us to contact the coast guard about the accident," Ambrosio also says in the transcript.

When asked by CNN about Ambrosio's statements on the transcript, Schettino's attorney, Bruno Leporatti, declined to comment.

The ship's owner, Costa Cruiselines of Genova, also was allowed Saturday to remain as an interested party in the preliminary hearings, but not as an injured party, the attorneys said. The company is allowed to remain in the proceeding because the eight persons under investigation are the firm's employees, the attorneys said.

Judge Valeria Montesarchio, who presided over the near five-hour hearing, will rule on March 9 on when the ship's black box will be opened and analyzed, attorneys said.

The next hearing is set for July 21 in Grosseto.

Saturday's court action was a preliminary hearing and is akin to a U.S. grand jury investigation, also a closed proceeding.

The tribunal, which marked the second preliminary hearing so far in the catastrophe, was held in the Moderno theater to accommodate many of the 4,200 passengers and crew who are named as injured parties.

Attorneys participating in the hearing told CNN of what happened behind the closed doors. More than 70 lawyers and 20 passengers and relatives of the missing attended the hearing.

No one has been charged in the Costa Concordia incident, though charges are expected, attorneys added.

Carlo Rienzi, president of Codacons, the consumer advocacy group for Italy's tourism sector, said the judge on Saturday barred environmental and consumer groups. Rienzi's group has joined two American law firms -- Proner & Proner, and Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik -- in representing several hundred passengers in civil law suits against Costa's parent company, Carnival Cruise Lines, of Miami, Florida.

On Thursday, the prosecutor temporarily suspended the DNA identification of the latest eight bodies found aboard the shipwreck last month. Families were notified on Thursday that a court-appointed expert must be present because of the manslaughter investigation. The expected resumption of the identification efforts wasn't immediately known, attorneys said.

One of those eight bodies is 5-year-old girl whose identity has already been established without confirmation by DNA testing, authorities said.

The cruise liner ran aground January 13 when it struck rocks and turned on its side off the Italian island of Giglio.

Seven persons remain missing in the incident, and a total of 25 bodies have been found, authorities said. The total death toll is estimated to be 32 persons, officials said. Of the 25 bodies found, 18 have been identified, authorities said.

Giulia Bongiorno, an attorney representing 67 Italian and German passengers who were aboard the Costa Concordia, told CNN that she made a formal court request that the black box data be analyzed from the moment the cruise liner started registering data -- prior to leaving the port of Civitavecchia -- to determine whether the officers and crew followed proper procedure and to determine at what point and under whose command the ship deviated from its route.

Bongiorno was also the attorney who represented Raffaele Sollecito, the boyfriend of Amanda Knox, who were both convicted in Italy in the murder of Knox's roommate, Meredith Kercher. Sollecito and Knox both successfully appealed their convictions last year and were freed.

Sergio Amerotto, 67, a passenger on the Costa Concordia, said he attended Saturday's hearing because he is seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the tragedy.

"We are here so those who lost their lives did not die in vain," he told CNN. "We need to understand who is responsible for their deaths. The captain did absurd things, but the black box will reveal who else acted irresponsibly."

Barbie Nadeau contributed from Grossetto, Italy, and CNN's Michael Martinez from Los Angeles.

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