After three years, Italian court rules Eritrean man not trafficking boss

Claims Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe was not the notorious people smuggler dubbed 'the general' surfaced almost as soon as he was extradited to Italy

epa07712685 Medhanie Tesfamariam Bere (L), mistaken for being Medhanie Yehdego Mered and on charges of running one of the largest human trafficking gangs, reacts in the dock as he listens to the reading of the sentence during his trial at Ucciardone bunker hall in Palermo, Sicily Island, Italy, 12 July 2019. An Eritrean man arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy in 2016 on charges of running one of the largest human trafficking gangs in Africa is the wrong man, a Palermo court said on 12 July. The man in the dock is not alleged trafficking kingpin Mered Medhanie Yedhego but actually Medhanie Tesfamariam Bere, a carpenter who is also involved in migrant trafficking and who has been sentenced to five years for abetting trafficking, the judges said. The court ordered Bere to be released.  EPA/IGOR PETYX

Despite claims he was the victim of mistaken identity from almost the day he was extradited to Italy, it took nearly three years in jail for a judge to ruled that Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe was not a ruthless, human-trafficking kingpin.

But, rather releasing him a free man, the court ruled that he was nonetheless guilty of abetting people smuggling and handed him a five-year prison term and a fine of 100,000 euros ($112,450).

Because he has already spent three years behind bars, the court said he could go free. But rather than release him, police took Berhe to a facility in the centre of Sicily where migrants are placed ahead of their eventual expulsion.

His lawyer Michele Calantropo said Berhe had a right under Italian law to appeal his conviction, adding that he thought it would be illegal to expel him at this point in time.

"He cried like a child when he was told that the judges had recognised it was mistaken identity and ordered his immediate release," Mr Calantropo had said earlier outside the courtroom, expecting his client to be immediately be let out of prison.

"Today we have applied for asylum for him," he said.

FILE - This June 7, 2016 file photo taken from a video and released by the Italian Police shows a man identified by prosecutors as Medhane Yehdego Mered, center, a 35-year-old Eritrean, arrested two weeks earlier in Sudan, upon his arrival at Ciampino's airport, on the outskirts of Rome. On Friday, July 12, 2019, a court in Sicily will deliberate the fate of alleged migrants smugglers, including an Eritrean who claims his is a case of mistaken ID. The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo contends the defendant's identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he's innocent, prosecutors insist his client is Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin. ( Italian Police via AP/files)

Friday's verdict represented a setback to both Italian and British investigators who worked together to secure the arrest of the man who was identified in court as Medhanie Yehdego Mered – a notorious Eritrean smuggler nicknamed "the General".

The defendant, arrested by police in a coffee shop in Sudan's capital Khartoum, maintained that he was called Berhe and was an impoverished refugee with no criminal background.

"The court has accepted our position. He is not the General," Mr Calantropo said.

Some of Mered's alleged victims had testified that they did not recognise the arrested man, while relatives of the alleged smuggling mastermind also said it was a case of mistaken identity. DNA tests also suggested it was the wrong person.

However, Italian prosecutors Calogero Ferrara and Claudio Camilleri insisted during proceedings, which were spaced out over three years, that the right man had been caught thanks – partly – to the help of Britain's National Crime Agency.

They demanded a 14-year prison sentence and pushed on with the prosecution.

"The court has recognised that this man was a human trafficker," chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi told reporters, adding that his office would read the court's full report on the case before deciding whether to appeal the reduced verdict.

The court found five other men – three Eritreans and nationals from Ivory Coast and Ghana – guilty of various human smuggling offences, handing them terms of up to five years, three months in prison plus fines of up to 60,000 euros.

At the time of Berhe'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.

Italy and Britain worked together for more than a year trying to track the General, using telephone intercepts to follow his movements before deciding to request his arrest by Sudanese authorities in June 2016.

During his trial, Berhe acknowledged phoning contacts in Libya, but said he was merely looking to talk to relatives hoping to escape to Europe, like many Eritrean nationals.