An Eritrean man extradited from Sudan to Italy on suspicion of being the head of a human smuggling ring has told investigators they have arrested the wrong man, his lawyer said.
Lawyer Michele Calantropo said his client “denied being the suspect and also denied being linked in any way to a trafficking network”, when questioned by Italian magistrates on Friday.
“He is another man … and doesn’t understand the meaning of this arrest,” Calantropo said, adding that his client was a carpenter.
‘Release my brother’
On Wednesday, Italian and British anti-crime agencies announced the arrest of Medhane Yehdego Mered, who was caught in Sudan and flown to Italy to face trial.
However, when photographs of the arrested man were released after his arrival in Rome on Wednesday, family and friends said he was an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.
“These are two different people,” Meron Estefanos, the Sweden-based executive director of the Eritrean Initiative on Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.
If you notice the one that the Italians have, he is shorter and younger, while the real Medhane Mered is older, a 36-year-old much taller [man]. If you see the pictures close-up, it just doesn’t add up.”
Segem Tasfamariam Berhe also told Italian reporters she recognised her brother in the footage.
“I want to tell Italian police my brother is innocent, he is not the man they are looking for. Please, investigators, release my brother,” she was quoted as saying from Sudan’s capital Khartoum by Italy’s Rai News.
Italian prosecutors admitted on Thursday that they were checking the suspect’s identity after reports that the arrested man was the victim of a case of mistaken identity.
Sudan’s interior ministry, Italian police and Britain’s National Crime Agency had made much of the arrest of Mered – dubbed “the general” – in Khartoum at the end of May and his extradition to Italy.
He is on a global wanted list since 2015 for people-smuggling, and is accused of packing refugees on to a boat that sank in 2013 off the Italian island of Lampedusa, drowning 360 people.
In recent months, Europe has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, more than 48,500 people have arrived in Italy by boat so far this year.
More than 10,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe since 2014.