UAE arrests head of major human trafficking network

UAE joins forces with Interpol and local police in Sudan to hit Eritrean human trafficking ring

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam was arrested in Sudan on January 1. Photo: Interpol
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The UAE has announced the arrest of two internationally wanted men allegedly involved in human trafficking and money laundering.

The two brothers and their associates were caught following a nine-month security operation led by the UAE in partnership with Interpol.

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam of Eritrea was arrested in Sudan on Sunday by local police in co-operation with the UAE's Ministry of Interior, it was announced in a press conference on Thursday.

He was wanted for leading a criminal organisation that, over several years, kidnapped, mistreated and extorted East African migrants looking to migrate to Europe, according to an Interpol red notice.

His gang held thousands of African refugees and migrants bound for Europe in warehouses in Libya and extorted thousands of dollars from them and their families, Reuters reported in June.

Kidane was arrested in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 2020 but escaped in February 2021. Four months later, in his absence, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In October, Dutch prosecutors put Kidane on their most wanted list. Reuters said a Dutch public prosecutor's investigation revealed that his organisation “abuses, extorts, kidnaps and rapes Eritreans” who want to reach the Netherlands.

After his arrest in Sudan this week, he was extradited to the UAE.

In a video shared on social media by Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, showed the trafficking routes for hundreds of illegal immigrants from Africa to Europe, with people moved from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Libya across the Mediterranean Sea and into Italy.

Brig Saeed Al Suwaidi, director general of the UAE's Federal Anti-Narcotics General Directorate, said on Thursday that Kidane will face trial in the UAE.

“UAE Public Prosecution is reviewing his file for the moment,” Brig Al Suwaidi said.

“He will go on trial first in the UAE and the court will decide later on the extradition to Ethiopia or Netherlands after he gets his final judgment.

“It was a happy new year for all police departments working on this operation.”

It is estimated that since 2014, Kidane has been responsible for the trafficking of thousands of victims.

In March last year, intelligence gathered by Interpol's Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants unit led to a task force being formed by participants from the UAE, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Netherlands and Europol.

The collaboration generated fresh intelligence which allowed UAE authorities to conduct an investigation into Kidane's network and family as well as identify money-laundering activities.

“His arrest will neutralise a major people-smuggling route to Europe and protect thousands who would have been at risk of exploitation,” Brig Al Suwaidi said.

“[Kidane] is top level in his network. He was directing his partners on how to transfer migrants from one place to another.”

Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of Police Services at Interpol, said Kidane used people as commodities.

“We know he was using false identification to cross borders and he was travelling by air sometimes,” Mr Kavanagh said.

“We are proud of the co-operation with the UAE and the global effort to arrest Zekarias [Kidane].”

Stefan Schrander, warrant officer, Royal Netherlands Marechaussee said the co-operation between the various police forces “has already resulted in the extradition by Ethiopia last year of a close associate of his and is now followed by a major arrest”.

Kidane's brother, Henok, was also arrested in the operation in Sudan and will face charges of money laundering.

More arrests are expected as part of ongoing investigations and as co-ordination continues with several Interpol member countries.

Updated: January 05, 2023, 4:59 PM