Eritrean on trial in Italy accused of being human trafficking kingpin named ‘the General’ is cleared after 21 months as court agrees carpenter’s claim of mistaken identity
- Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre was mistaken for a notorious people trafficker
- Police believed Behre was Medhanie Yehdego Mered, 35, who is still on the run
- The smuggling network of the ‘General’ has netted him more than £75 million
An Eritrean accused of being a human trafficking kingpin has been released after 21 months as an Italian court ruled that he was a victim of mistaken identity.
The defendant was incorrectly accused of being Medhanie Yehdego Mered, 35, known as ‘The General’, whose continent-wide smuggling network has netted him more than £75 million.
Italian judges ruled that the defendant was nonetheless guilty of abetting people smuggling and handed him a 5-year prison term.
Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre was believed to be human trafficking kingpin Medhanie Yehdego Mered
He was subsequently released because he has already spent three years behind bars.
The verdict represents a setback to both Italian and British investigators who worked together to secure the arrest of the notorious ‘General’.
Both countries hailed his capture at the time as a rare victory in the battle against human trafficking, in spite of protests from the defendant that he was an impoverished refugee called Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre with no criminal background.
Doubts: Both these pictures allegedly show Medhanie Yehdego Mered, but friends and family came forward and said the arrested man, right, is an Eritrean refugee called Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane in 2016
‘The court has accepted our position. He is not the General,’ Medhanie’s lawyer Michele Calantropo told reporters outside the Sicilian court where the verdict was handed down.
He said his defendant would appeal against the guilty verdict for the lesser offence and wanted to stay in Italy.
‘Today we have applied for asylum for him,’ Calantropo said.
Some of Mered’s alleged victims had testified in court that they did not recognise the arrested man, while relatives of the alleged smuggling mastermind also said it was a case of mistaken identity.
Claims of mistaken identity came after Italian authorities announced the arrest, and images of the man they said was Mered was published in international media
However, Italian prosecutors Calogero Ferrara and Claudio Camilleri insisted during proceedings, spaced out over three years, that the right man had been caught, thanks partly to the help of Britain’s National Crime Agency.
Together with local authorities, the man claimed to be Mered was arrested at a safe house in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 2016.
Police officials were so concerned about Mered’s influence on corrupt local officials that they did not announce his capture until he was extradited to Italy.
The man authorities claim is Mered a.k.a. ‘The General’ was extradited from Sudan to Italy after being arrested in 2016
But following the announcement several people contacted the media to say the man paraded by officers was not Mered.
They said the man seen being walked off the plane by Italian officials in 2016 was a 27-year-old Eritrean refugee called Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane.
‘He’s my best friend, he’s innocent,’ said one of Kidane’s flatmates tracked down in Khartoum by The Guardian.
Kidane’s cousin also spoke to the newspaper, adding: ‘It’s the wrong guy. He’s not a human trafficker. He’s from my family.’
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean broadcaster based in Sweden claimed to have been contacted by almost 400 people claiming that the man arrested is Kidane and not Mered.
Friends of Kidane (pictured) also pointed out that photos of him bore no resemblance to photographs of Mered
Friends of Kidane also pointed out that photos of him bore no resemblance to photographs of Mered.
However, a police source claimed that they were certain that they had the right man, and that it was the initial picture of Mered that showed the wrong man.
‘The picture [of a man in a blue shirt wearing a crucifix] was of another man with a similar name. We are sure we have the right man,’ an Italian police source told The Times.
Detectives believe Mered has hidden huge sums of money in Dubai, America and Canada and was preparing for a new life in the West with his family.
Migrants wait at a fishing port in the Libyan city of Tripoli after being caught trying to board boats headed for Europe in 2016
The investigation into Mered began after 359 people drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013.
Prosecutor Geri Ferrara said of Mered’s operation: ‘We don’t know the exact number of boats that sank because often nobody survived, but thousands of people drowned.’
Mr Ferrara said there was evidence the gang tortured migrants in safe-houses in Libya. ‘They certainly used violence and deprived the migrants of food and water.’
Mered’s wife Lidya Tesfu fled to Sweden as a refugee with the couple’s young son. Police suspect Mered was organising fake identity documents before travelling to join her.
Secret phone taps caught Mered red-handed boasting about his profits and laughing about the plight of his victims.
The smuggler’s Tripoli-based network was responsible for the journeys of 10,000 migrants in just three months in 2014, as they charged up to £700,000 a boat.
The number of migrant crossings has since risen above 600,000, but the flows into Italy have slowed dramatically over the past two years
Tom Dowdall, of the National Crime Agency, described Mered as a ‘prolific people smuggler’ with an ‘absolute disregard for human life’.
He added: ‘Although he was operating thousands of miles away, his criminal activity was impacting the UK.’
If the right man had been caught, it would have been the first time a suspected kingpin has been tracked down in Africa, and brought to face justice in Italy since Europe’s immigration crisis started almost five years ago.
Mered, nicknamed ‘The General’ is suspected of working with a Ethiopian national, Ghermay Ermias, who is still at large.
Between them, they have allegedly raked in huge sums by bringing migrants from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats.
Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara previously said that the two controlled an operation that was ‘much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined.’
Mr Ferrara said they were opportunistic, purchasing kidnapped migrants from other criminals in Africa.
By his calculations, each boat trip of 600 people made the smugglers between $800,000 and $1 million before costs.
The smuggling networks have mostly eluded international law enforcement agencies because they are based on anonymous cells spread across many countries.
More than 15,000 people are also believed to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of 2014, some off the Italian coast and others seeking to reach Greece.
At the time of Medhanie’s arrest some 360,000 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy in just two years, with many hundreds drowning while trying to reach Europe.
The number of migrant crossings has since risen above 600,000, but the flows have slowed dramatically over the past two years as successive governments in Rome have cracked down on people smuggling.
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