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Long road to freedom for farmworker accused of being notorious trafficker Long road to freedom for farmworker accused of being notorious trafficker
(31 minutes later)
On the afternoon of 24 May 2016, a man alleged to be a notorious migrant trafficking kingpin nicknamed the General was drinking coffee in a bar on the outskirts of Khartoum when two police officers pulled a hood over his head, kicked him and forced him on to a flight from Sudan to Rome.On the afternoon of 24 May 2016, a man alleged to be a notorious migrant trafficking kingpin nicknamed the General was drinking coffee in a bar on the outskirts of Khartoum when two police officers pulled a hood over his head, kicked him and forced him on to a flight from Sudan to Rome.
The arrest was presented to the press as a brilliant coup by the Italian prosecutors, who had captured the suspect with the help of the UK’s National Crime Agency after a long, sprawling international investigation that spanned two continents and five countries.The arrest was presented to the press as a brilliant coup by the Italian prosecutors, who had captured the suspect with the help of the UK’s National Crime Agency after a long, sprawling international investigation that spanned two continents and five countries.
Eritrean man released from jail in Italian mistaken identity case
According to the Italian investigators, the man they named as Medhanie Yehdego Mered was guilty of personally overseeing the perilous boat journeys of more than 13,000 people from Libya to Europe.According to the Italian investigators, the man they named as Medhanie Yehdego Mered was guilty of personally overseeing the perilous boat journeys of more than 13,000 people from Libya to Europe.
But on Friday, a Palermo judge acquitted the suspect, who has spent more than three years in jail on charges of being a human trafficker. The ruling confirmed that the man arrested in the Sudanese capital and extradited to Rome was in fact a 29-year-old Eritrean named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, who had fallen victim to what may be one of the most embarrassing cases of mistaken identity in Italian legal history.But on Friday, a Palermo judge acquitted the suspect, who has spent more than three years in jail on charges of being a human trafficker. The ruling confirmed that the man arrested in the Sudanese capital and extradited to Rome was in fact a 29-year-old Eritrean named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, who had fallen victim to what may be one of the most embarrassing cases of mistaken identity in Italian legal history.
He was found guilty of the much lesser charge of aiding illegal immigration for helping his cousin reach Libya, but was released immediately for time served.He was found guilty of the much lesser charge of aiding illegal immigration for helping his cousin reach Libya, but was released immediately for time served.
The hunt for MeredThe hunt for Mered
Led by Italian prosecutors, the hunt for Mered and his affiliates began after a shipwreck in October 2013, in which 368 people died a few miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The next day Italy and its allies in Europe declared war on human traffickers. The goal was to capture the smugglers who organised the crossings. Amid growing public disquiet about the arrival of thousands of migrants on boats each week, the idea gained immediate support.Led by Italian prosecutors, the hunt for Mered and his affiliates began after a shipwreck in October 2013, in which 368 people died a few miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The next day Italy and its allies in Europe declared war on human traffickers. The goal was to capture the smugglers who organised the crossings. Amid growing public disquiet about the arrival of thousands of migrants on boats each week, the idea gained immediate support.
News of the arrest in June 2016, after an investigation that spanned two continents and five countries, was presented to the press as a brilliant victory for the new anti-trafficking strategy. The Eritrean was apparently the first human smuggler to be extradited from Africa and regarded as the “Al Capone of the desert” by the authorities.News of the arrest in June 2016, after an investigation that spanned two continents and five countries, was presented to the press as a brilliant victory for the new anti-trafficking strategy. The Eritrean was apparently the first human smuggler to be extradited from Africa and regarded as the “Al Capone of the desert” by the authorities.
The analogy with the American mobster is not coincidental. In order to capture the Eritrean, authorities in Palermo convinced their EU counterparts to join the crusade on an alluring premise: that the same tactics used to combat the Sicilian mafia in the 1990s could ensnare modern human smugglers – wiretaps and the intuition that among smugglers lies a power structure regulated by a code of honour.The analogy with the American mobster is not coincidental. In order to capture the Eritrean, authorities in Palermo convinced their EU counterparts to join the crusade on an alluring premise: that the same tactics used to combat the Sicilian mafia in the 1990s could ensnare modern human smugglers – wiretaps and the intuition that among smugglers lies a power structure regulated by a code of honour.
But within a few hours of the Italian authorities’ announcement of the arrest, hundreds of Mered’s victims were already claiming the wrong man had been detained. According to the family of the extradited man, far from being a notorious people smuggler, Berhe earned his living milking cows on a farm and working once in a while as a carpenter. What’s more, Berhe did not even resemble the trafficker Mered, whose picture the prosecutors had released to the press: long hair, blue T-shirt, a proud mien and a gold crucifix on his chest.But within a few hours of the Italian authorities’ announcement of the arrest, hundreds of Mered’s victims were already claiming the wrong man had been detained. According to the family of the extradited man, far from being a notorious people smuggler, Berhe earned his living milking cows on a farm and working once in a while as a carpenter. What’s more, Berhe did not even resemble the trafficker Mered, whose picture the prosecutors had released to the press: long hair, blue T-shirt, a proud mien and a gold crucifix on his chest.
The Guardian investigated the case, uncovering new witnesses and documents which were later produced by the defence to help prove his innocence.The Guardian investigated the case, uncovering new witnesses and documents which were later produced by the defence to help prove his innocence.
The Guardian published photographs that showed Mered, the real smuggler, celebrating at a family wedding in Khartoum – giving fresh impetus to claims that the man on trial in Italy and accused of being the smuggler was in fact a victim of mistaken identity.The Guardian published photographs that showed Mered, the real smuggler, celebrating at a family wedding in Khartoum – giving fresh impetus to claims that the man on trial in Italy and accused of being the smuggler was in fact a victim of mistaken identity.
Among the evidence suggesting Berhe’s innocence, including two DNA tests and an array of witnesses, was an article published in July 2017 by the New Yorker – headlined “How Not to Solve the Refugee Crisis” – based in part on a three-hour telephone interview with the real Mered, which revealed he had actually been in a jail in the Middle East for using a forged passport when Italian prosecutors travelled to Sudan and arrested an innocent refugee in his place.Among the evidence suggesting Berhe’s innocence, including two DNA tests and an array of witnesses, was an article published in July 2017 by the New Yorker – headlined “How Not to Solve the Refugee Crisis” – based in part on a three-hour telephone interview with the real Mered, which revealed he had actually been in a jail in the Middle East for using a forged passport when Italian prosecutors travelled to Sudan and arrested an innocent refugee in his place.
The revelations were confirmed a few months later in November 2017 by Sgt Samuel Sasso of the Italian coastguard, who had investigated Mered’s trafficking activity years before. Sasso testified in court that in the summer of 2016, after Berhe’s arrest, coastguard sources confirmed that the real Mered was in the United Arab Emirates.The revelations were confirmed a few months later in November 2017 by Sgt Samuel Sasso of the Italian coastguard, who had investigated Mered’s trafficking activity years before. Sasso testified in court that in the summer of 2016, after Berhe’s arrest, coastguard sources confirmed that the real Mered was in the United Arab Emirates.
The evidenceThe evidence
However, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, prosecutors continued to insist the man captured in Khartoum was the real smuggler and began waging an offensive against activists and journalists, wiretapping phone conversations among reporters who exposed their alleged error and the journalists’ sources.However, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, prosecutors continued to insist the man captured in Khartoum was the real smuggler and began waging an offensive against activists and journalists, wiretapping phone conversations among reporters who exposed their alleged error and the journalists’ sources.
Meanwhile, some of the real Mered’s trafficking victims came to Palermo to testify about the case of mistaken identity. They were also put under investigation by the prosecutors, who believed they were covering for Berhe.Meanwhile, some of the real Mered’s trafficking victims came to Palermo to testify about the case of mistaken identity. They were also put under investigation by the prosecutors, who believed they were covering for Berhe.
One question remained unanswered: if the prosecutors had arrested an innocent man, then where was the real Mered?One question remained unanswered: if the prosecutors had arrested an innocent man, then where was the real Mered?
In April 2018, a documentary by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, in collaboration with the Guardian, confirmed the suspicions and revealed that the real Mered was living it up in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, spending his substantial earnings in nightclubs while Berhe, the farmworker, faced up to 15 years in jail.In April 2018, a documentary by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, in collaboration with the Guardian, confirmed the suspicions and revealed that the real Mered was living it up in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, spending his substantial earnings in nightclubs while Berhe, the farmworker, faced up to 15 years in jail.
The SVT reporter Ali Fegan and the Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos travelled to Kampala and collected dozens of testimonies from Ugandan and Eritrean citizens who said they had seen and met Mered. “He is some kind of a wild celebrity and no one tries to arrest him,” one witness said. “We can’t just say we heard. I can say in absolute terms Mered is here,” said another.The SVT reporter Ali Fegan and the Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos travelled to Kampala and collected dozens of testimonies from Ugandan and Eritrean citizens who said they had seen and met Mered. “He is some kind of a wild celebrity and no one tries to arrest him,” one witness said. “We can’t just say we heard. I can say in absolute terms Mered is here,” said another.
The Palermo prosecutors who led the hunt for Mered not only ignored the evidence but yet again targeted someone who questioned their case, placing Estefanos under investigation – although she had put her life in danger to find the real Mered in Uganda.The Palermo prosecutors who led the hunt for Mered not only ignored the evidence but yet again targeted someone who questioned their case, placing Estefanos under investigation – although she had put her life in danger to find the real Mered in Uganda.
In the meantime, the Italian magistrates’ investigation began to weaken. In December 2018, Mered’s brother, Merhawi Yehdego, testified before the judge in Palermo via videolink from the Netherlands, saying the man facing trial in Sicily was not his sibling. The week before, a woman reported to be the trafficker’s wife, Lidya Tesfu, testified as well. She corroborated Merhawi’s testimony, telling the judge that the man in Italian prison was not her husband. “I know you have placed my husband under investigation,” she said. “But the man on trial is not Mered.”In the meantime, the Italian magistrates’ investigation began to weaken. In December 2018, Mered’s brother, Merhawi Yehdego, testified before the judge in Palermo via videolink from the Netherlands, saying the man facing trial in Sicily was not his sibling. The week before, a woman reported to be the trafficker’s wife, Lidya Tesfu, testified as well. She corroborated Merhawi’s testimony, telling the judge that the man in Italian prison was not her husband. “I know you have placed my husband under investigation,” she said. “But the man on trial is not Mered.”
A few months earlier, Lidya had authorised a DNA test on her three-year-old son, Rae Yehdego, who she and the prosecutorssay is the trafficker’s first son.A few months earlier, Lidya had authorised a DNA test on her three-year-old son, Rae Yehdego, who she and the prosecutorssay is the trafficker’s first son.
“We took a sample of saliva from the trafficker’s wife and son and crosschecked it with that of the detained man,” said Berhe’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo. “The result leaves no room for doubt: the man in prison is not the father of the child, and consequently is not the trafficker Mered.”“We took a sample of saliva from the trafficker’s wife and son and crosschecked it with that of the detained man,” said Berhe’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo. “The result leaves no room for doubt: the man in prison is not the father of the child, and consequently is not the trafficker Mered.”
The DNA evidence reinforced the results of an earlier test on Berhe’s mother, Meaza Zerai Weldai, 59, who travelled to Palermo from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, last October. Analysis showed she was the mother of the detained man.The DNA evidence reinforced the results of an earlier test on Berhe’s mother, Meaza Zerai Weldai, 59, who travelled to Palermo from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, last October. Analysis showed she was the mother of the detained man.
While thousands were mobilising across Europe to demand that Berhe be freed, Italian prosecutors controversially invited to Palermo two members of the Sudanese secret police who had collaborated with the NCA to arrest Berhe, to testify in the case against the man on trial.While thousands were mobilising across Europe to demand that Berhe be freed, Italian prosecutors controversially invited to Palermo two members of the Sudanese secret police who had collaborated with the NCA to arrest Berhe, to testify in the case against the man on trial.
Deals with the devilDeals with the devil
The obsession with arresting smugglers has in fact driven European democracies to forge ties with authoritarian regimes, which raises ethical questions: in order to extradite Berhe, the UK and Italy struck an agreement with Sudan, whose now deposed president, Omar al-Bashir, is the subject of an international arrest warrant for genocide.The obsession with arresting smugglers has in fact driven European democracies to forge ties with authoritarian regimes, which raises ethical questions: in order to extradite Berhe, the UK and Italy struck an agreement with Sudan, whose now deposed president, Omar al-Bashir, is the subject of an international arrest warrant for genocide.
“We were told we had to arrest a man who was accused of human trafficking,” one of the Sudanese officials stated. “They gave us a picture and a phone number. We have just executed the order. The detainee told us he was not the trafficker Medhanie Yehdego Mered, but called himself Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. He also said he was a refugee and that a trafficker had asked him for $1,800 to reach Europe.”“We were told we had to arrest a man who was accused of human trafficking,” one of the Sudanese officials stated. “They gave us a picture and a phone number. We have just executed the order. The detainee told us he was not the trafficker Medhanie Yehdego Mered, but called himself Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. He also said he was a refugee and that a trafficker had asked him for $1,800 to reach Europe.”
At the end of that hearing, Berhe described being tortured by Sudanese police officers.At the end of that hearing, Berhe described being tortured by Sudanese police officers.
“They beat me when they arrested me, beat me in prison,” he said. “They beat me with a heavy chain and tried to take off my clothes and do bad things to me. I had an ID card with me from Eritrea and a document from the refugee camp when I was in Ethiopia. But they took everything. I had a little money with me and they took that too. They told me if I’d had more money, they would have released me.”“They beat me when they arrested me, beat me in prison,” he said. “They beat me with a heavy chain and tried to take off my clothes and do bad things to me. I had an ID card with me from Eritrea and a document from the refugee camp when I was in Ethiopia. But they took everything. I had a little money with me and they took that too. They told me if I’d had more money, they would have released me.”
The most recent, and perhaps the most crucial, proof of his innocence was a voice analysis of Berhe and Mered, who had been caught on wiretap in 2014. The result unequivocally concluded that the man in prison was not the trafficker.The most recent, and perhaps the most crucial, proof of his innocence was a voice analysis of Berhe and Mered, who had been caught on wiretap in 2014. The result unequivocally concluded that the man in prison was not the trafficker.
But despite the overwhelming evidence they had got the wrong man, prosecutors still demanded a 14-year prison term for Berhe in their closing remarks last month.But despite the overwhelming evidence they had got the wrong man, prosecutors still demanded a 14-year prison term for Berhe in their closing remarks last month.
ItalyItaly
MigrationMigration
Human traffickingHuman trafficking
EritreaEritrea
EuropeEurope
AfricaAfrica
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