Trafficking kingpin or mistaken identity, court set for verdict

Eritrean national Medhanie Yehdego Mered

The fate of an alleged human trafficking kingpin who insists he is a victim of mistaken identity hangs in the balance Friday, with a verdict expected in a trial against him in Italy.

Eritrean national Medhanie Yehdego Mered is accused of being “the General” of one of the world’s largest migrant trafficking networks, with branches in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Europe.

But the man on trial in Sicily, arrested in Sudan in 2016 and extradited to Italy, insists he is carpenter Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.

The verdict will be delivered inside a massive bunker in Palermo built in the 1980s for the maxi-trial against the mafia.

The prosecution has called for him to be jailed for 14 years.

It is not the life sentence one might expect for an alleged people smuggling mastermind with blood on his hands, and proof they know they have the wrong man, the defendant’s lawyer says.

“They should just have said ‘we made a mistake’,” lawyer Michele Calantropo told AFP on Thursday.

Italy, Sudan and Britain at the time hailed the defendant’s capture as the stellar result of a joint operation which had dealt a significant blow to the people smuggling business.

Mered ended up on an international wanted list after being identified as the man who organised the packing of migrants onto a boat that sank off Italy in 2013, killing at least 360 people in one of the worst such disasters in the Mediterranean.

‘Huge injustice’

The “cynical and unscrupulous” Mered had been “continuously and constantly reaping vast profits while showing a contempt for human life,” according to a joint statement by Sudan, Italy and Britain announcing his arrest on May 24, 2016.

Calantropo insists that the man behind bars has only one thing in common with the trafficker: his first name, Medhanie.

Relatives have identified him as Berhe, and have provided evidence he was elsewhere when the trafficking was happening.

A New Yorker investigative reporter was told by “the General” himself in 2017 that the Italians had the wrong man.

“They have nothing on him, he did nothing,” Calantropo said.

“If he is convicted, I’ll do everything possible to defend the truth. Not just at the appeal court and supreme court, but at the European Court of Human Rights as well,” he added.

“This is one of the biggest injustices on the face of the earth”.

Medhanie was the name flagged by Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) in 2016 when it heard someone going by that name calling the tapped phone of a suspected smuggler in Libya.

The man who made the calls was tracked down and arrested in Khartoum.

‘Admit their mistake’

But while prosecutors say the calls were made to organise migrant trips, Calantropo says his client — who back home made extra money on the side by delivering milk — was just looking out for loved ones heading to Europe.

Prosecutors said two Eritrean translators had testified to police that the arrested man’s voice matched a 2014 recording of “the General” captured by wiretap, though standard voice recognition software failed to produce a result.

Members of Sudan’s secret service who arrested him testified at the trial that he had insisted his name was different.

But they told the court they had not informed their superiors because the name he gave had similarities to the one they had.

“I went to see him this morning, he cried without stopping for one hour and a half,” Calantropo said.

“You can only imagine the stress he has been under for the past three years.

“They got it wrong, they should now admit their mistakes,” he added.

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