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People smuggler was in UAE jail when refugee arrested in his place

Magazine has three-hour conversation with Medhanie Yehdego Mered, ‘most wanted’ people smuggler, who heard of his own arrest while already in prison

Wednesday 26 July 2017 06.45 BST Last modified on Wednesday 26 July 2017 06.46 BST
One of the world’s most-wanted people smugglers was in jail in the United Arab Emirates when Italian prosecutors travelled to Sudan and arrested an innocent refugee in his place, the New Yorker has reported.

Prosecutors in Palermo announced the capture and extradition of Medhanie Yehdego Mered in June 2016, describing it as “the arrest of the year”. The suspect was extradited to Italy with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK’s National Crime Agency, which had participated in the operation.

But almost immediately questions were raised over the real identity of the arrested man, after friends of the detainee told the Guardian he was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old Eritrean refugee.

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Berhe remains in custody, even though his family, data from his Facebook account and even Mered’s wife have lent support to his argument that he is the innocent victim of mistaken identity.

Man presented as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, 35, an Eritrean suspected of controlling a migrant trafficking network, upon his extradition from Sudan to Italy. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images
This week the New Yorker published an article – entitled How Not to Solve the Refugee Crisis – based in part on a three-hour telephone interview with Mered. He remains at large and told the magazine he was in prison at the time of the arrest.

Mered, who is suspected of personally overseeing the perilous boat journeys of more than 13,000 people from Libya to Europe, claimed to have been arrested by customs officials in December 2015 for using a forged Eritrean passport. He said he was imprisoned for eight months.

According to the New Yorker, Mered learned of his own supposed extradition to Italy, when he was still in prison. Although he did not say which country he was held in, a phone call to his brother which was intercepted by an Italian prosecutor suggests that he was being held in the UAE.

Mered was held until August 2016 – two months after his supposed arrest. He was released after an associate presented authorities with another fake passport and he was repatriated to his supposed country of origin, the article says.

“His time in prison explains why the Italian wiretaps on his Sudanese number picked up nothing in the months before Berhe was arrested; it also explains why, when the Italians asked Facebook to turn over Mered’s log-in data, there was a gap during that period,” writes the article’s author, Ben Taub.

The magazine also describes the Guardian’s role in exposing the case of mistaken identity in a string of articles which “continued reporting on the Medhanie trial, embarrassing the prosecutors every few weeks with new stories showing that the wrong man might be in jail”.

After almost ten months, Berhe remains in prison. His family have been unable to visit him there because only family members can visit inmates and he remains registered as Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

Prosecutors insist the man captured in Khartoum is the real smuggler, even though they have not been able to find a single witness to testify against him.

Last month prosecutor Gery Ferrara, who has led the investigation from the start, petitioned to transfer the trial to the assize court, which is overseen by lay judges. The trial – which, at the request of the Italian authorities, has already changed judges three times – will start again from scratch.

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