Police investigating if wrong man caught in anti-smuggling operation
Italian and British police are urgently investigating whether they caught the wrong person in a much-hyped anti-smuggling operation said to have .
Investigators in both countries announced with great fanfare on Wednesday morning that they had seized Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a 35-year-old Eritrean whom an Italian prosecutor called “the boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya”.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which was involved in the investigation, hailed the capture of “one of the world’s most-wanted people smugglers”, following his extradition on Wednesday to Italy from Sudan, where he had been arrested.
But just hours later both Italy and Britain were looking into whether the Sudanese had sent them the wrong man, after three close friends of the detainee alleged to the Guardian that he was the victim of mistaken identity.
They said the man sent to Italy was in fact Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, known to some friends by his ancestral name of Kidane, a 29-year-old refugee arrested in a street in Khartoum late last month.
He shared a first name with the wanted man, but he had never been to Libya, where Mered was supposed to have centred his operations, and had nothing to do with people smuggling, the three men claimed.
Photographs of Berhe, they pointed out, did not resemble those of Mered.
Fshaye Tasfai, a 42-year-old Eritrean exile now living in Sicily, and Berhe’s cousin, said he had grown up with Kidane in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. “It’s the wrong guy,” said Tasfai. “It’s incredible – he’s not a human trafficker. He’s from my family. He lived in my father’s house. He left Eritrea in 2014, and then went to Khartoum about a year ago. He lived with my brothers and sisters in Khartoum. He didn’t have a job so we use to send him money.”
Tasfai’s account was corroborated to the Guardian by one of Berhe’s flatmates in Khartoum. “He’s my best friend,” one said. “He’s innocent.”
His flatmate said Berhe was arrested in the street in late May before being taken home for his room to be searched. Then he disappeared for several days before re-appearing – inexplicably – in Rome on Wednesday.
“They’ve definitely got the wrong guy,” said a third friend, who lived in the same area. “He’s not a human trafficker, he’s just a simple refugee. We used to drink tea together.”
Meron Estefanos, a Sweden-based Eritrean broadcaster well known in the Eritrean diaspora, was the first to raise the alarm. “I have almost 400 people writing to me saying: I know this guy, he grew up with me,” she said. “This is the wrong person.”
The Italian and British authorities said they were looking into the claims on Wednesday night, though neither would publicly admit to any mistakes.
An NCA spokesperson said: “We have noted your report. This is a complex multi-partner operation and it is too soon to speculate about these claims. The NCA is confident in its intelligence-gathering process.”
If it is the wrong man, the news will come as blow to European investigators, who hoped they had finally snared one of their most-wanted suspects. More than 320,000 people reached Italy from Libya in 2014 and 2015, including over 70,000 Eritreans. By his account, Mered – the smuggler who allegedly still remains at large – had a hand in roughly 4% of this market.
“He admitted to smuggling 13,000 people,” said Estefanos, who interviewed the real Mered by telephone as part of her research into the treatment of Eritrean refugees in north Africa. “I have never seen any [Eritrean smuggler] become as big as him so quickly.”
In his interview with Estefanos, Mered suggested that he did not have a practical role in the transportation of migrants either across the Mediterranean, or through the Sahara. Instead he said he acted more as a middleman, working under the protection of Libyan and Sudanese officials to whom he supplied a constant flow of passengers. They then organised the logistics of moving people across seas and deserts, in exchange for a large cut of his profits.
“The smugglers are fixers,” said Estefanos. “Medhanie [Mered] told me he’s never set foot on the shore.”
Guardian interviews with Eritrean refugees suggest Sudanese drivers carry Eritreans to the Libyan border, where they are crammed into trucks driven by Libyan smugglers and taken on a hellish journey to north-eastern Libya. Many die of thirst en route, or are sometimes abandoned in the desert to die, in a trek that is often described as worse than even the sea crossing.
Once in north-east Libya, refugees are often held for ransom, and frequently tortured – until relatives send money via the smugglers’ accomplices in Europe, the Gulf and north America. Once a ransom is paid, refugees are judged to have settled their debts for the desert journey, and driven westwards to towns near Tripoli – where they are often ransomed again as advance payment for the Mediterranean journey.
Italian wiretaps suggest that the real Mered played a role in the procurement of ransom payments from the Eritrean diaspora. They also record him explaining how he bribes Libyan police to release migrants held within detention centres – migrants he would then hold for ransom until their relatives paid him back for their release.
All this made him “one of the four most important human smugglers in Africa and Libya,” prosecutor Calogero Ferrara insisted to the Guardian.
But despite his allegedly prominent role, Libyan smugglers previously interviewed by the Guardian have been dismissive about the importance of sub-Saharan smugglers within their networks, and questioned how much impact foreigners would have in a country where migrants are treated as second-class citizens.
“The Africans collect people for us, and they get their commission,” said Ahmed, a Libyan smuggler interviewed in 2015. “But it’s much less than the Libyans. Whatever you give them, they will do it.”
Reitano, a smuggling expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, doubted that the real Mered was as essential a player as he has been presented.
“It is unlikely he played such a strategic role in a Libyan network, and I always thought his role may have been overblown by Italian law enforcement keen to be seen to have an impact,” said Reitano.
In a separate development on Wednesday, a UN inquiry concluded that Eritrea’s government is committing crimes against humanity “in a widespread and systematic manner”, including murder, rape, torture, slavery, and disappearances.
Mike Smith, chair of the inquiry, said: “Eritrea is an authoritarian state. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions in Eritrea. This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century. These crimes are still occurring today.”
In a dig at whitewashed reporting by western diplomats and visiting correspondents, the report states: “The facade of calm and normality that is apparent to the occasional visitor to the country, and others confined to sections of the capital, belies the consistent patterns of serious human rights violations.”
• This article was amended on 9 June. Earlier versions used Berhe’s ancestral name, Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane. Also, he is 29, not 27, as originally reported.