A man who was arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK National Crime Agency, which had participated in the operation, has told a court in Palermo, Sicily, “You are prosecuting the wrong man. This is all absurd.’’
According to a report in the UK newspaper The Guardian published this week, the accused in Italy’s highest-profile human trafficking case has spoken in court for the first time since his trial started more than year ago to claim he was the victim of mistaken identity.
The man says he is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old refugee and former milk-hand, The Guardian reports.
After more than a year of proceedings, Italian prosecutors have failed to produce a single witness to testify against a man they have accused of being one of the most influential people-smugglers in north Africa, who sent thousands of Eritrean refugees from Libya to Italy.
As reported by Radio Dabanga in June 2016, an Eritrean man, allegedly pivotal in the operation to smuggle migrants from Africa to Europe, has landed in Rome after being extradited to Italy from Sudan.
The man alleged to be Mered Medhanie, known as ‘The General’, was held in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in May 2016. He was flown to Rome on June 7 2016.
Italian news agency Ansa said at the time that Medhanie is accused of being “the leader and organiser of one of the largest criminal groups operating between central Africa and Libya”.
Britain’s National Crime Agency says he is thought to have arranged the transit of a boat that sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. At least 359 migrants – most from Eritrea and Somalia – died when the boat, travelling from Libya, capsized.
Prosecutors accuse Medhanie of running the network alongside an Ethiopian accomplice, who is still at large. The two men are accused of buying-up kidnapped migrants from other gangs and sending those migrants on barely seaworthy ships across the Mediterranean towards Europe.
The UK’s National Crime Agency said it had tracked him down to an address in Khartoum, where he was then arrested. The rare extradition from Sudan to Italy was completed in record time, reported Italy’s La Repubblica.
However soon after the accused was arrested and extradited, friends of his told international news agencies that ‘the police had the wrong guy’.
The BBC spoke to one man, Hermon Berhe, who lives in Ethiopia and said he grew up in Eritrea with the man shown in the pictures.
“I don’t think he has any bone in his body which can involve such kind of things,” he said. “He is a loving, friendly and kind person.”
Another Eritrean man told the BBC’s Will Ross he recently shared a house in Sudan with the man who was arrested.
Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who interviewed the real Mered Medanie told Swedish media the man in the images was not him, but was instead a 28-year-old man with the same name.
“He’s just a refugee who was in Khartoum, poor guy,” she told Aftonbladet newspaper.
Sources: (The Guardian / BBC / RD)