Accused says he is not notorious Eritrean smuggler Medhanie Yehdego Mered but a refugee wrongly arrested in Sudan
Tuesday 3 October 2017 15.00 BST Last modified on Tuesday 3 October 2017 22.00 BST
The accused in Italy’s highest-profile human trafficking case has spoken in court for the first time since his trial started more than year ago to claim he was the victim of mistaken identity.
“This is not my name. This is not my surname. This is not my identity,” the man, who Italian authorities say is the notorious Eritrean people smuggler, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, told a court in Palermo, Sicily. “You are prosecuting the wrong man. This is all absurd.’’
The man says he is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old refugee and former milk-hand, wrongly arrested in 2016 in Sudan and extradited to Italy with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK National Crime Agency, which had participated in the operation.
After more than a year of proceedings, Italian prosecutors have failed to produce a single witness to testify against a man they have accused of being one of the most influential people-smugglers in north Africa, who sent thousands of Eritrean refugees from Libya to Italy.
His appearance on Tuesday marked the opening of a new trial after the prosecutor, Gery Ferrara, who led the investigation against Mered from the beginning, petitioned to transfer the trial to the Palermo assize court, which handles more serious criminal offences, such as Mafia-related murders and kidnappings.
The trial – which has already changed judges three times over the course of 22 hearings since proceeding began in July 2016 – will start again from scratch. This coincides with the fourth anniversary of the migrant shipwreck in Lampedusa in 2013 that claimed the lives of 360 Eritreans, and after which investigators began their hunt for Mered.
Prosecutors in Sicily announced Mered’s capture in June 2016, describing it as “the arrest of the year”, but almost immediately questions were raised over his real identity. Friends of the detainee told the Guardian he was “just a refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe”.
The defendant’s family, data from his Facebook account and even Mered’s wife, who has said the man on trial is not her husband, have lent support to his argument that he is the innocent victim of mistaken identity.
Mered, it was reported in July, was in jail in the United Arab Emirates at the time Italian prosecutors travelled to Sudan, following his arrest in December 2015 for using a forged Eritrean passport. The Guardian has obtained a copy of the forged passport, which, according to several sources, was used by the smuggler to travel around Africa. The picture in the forged document matches one produced by Italian investigators in 2014.
The UAE arrest was documented in an article published in the New Yorker based in part on a three-hour telephone interview with the real smuggler. He said he was imprisoned for eight months and learned of his own supposed extradition to Italy when he was still in jail.
A Swedish-Eritrean journalist and activist, Meron Estefanos, who runs Radio Erena, a Tigrinya-language radio station, was given the copy of the passport a year ago. “I brought that copy with me to Palermo and decided to give the passport to the prosecutors so that if they really wanted to capture Mered they could have traced him using the passport. Unfortunately they refused to meet with me,” she said.
At the hearing on Tuesday, the defence lawyer, Michele Calantropo, submitted a document containing the official transcript of a Dutch police interrogation of Merhawi Yehdego Mered, the smuggler’s brother. Merhawi lives in Hilversum in the Netherlands, and the interrogation was conducted in September 2015 at the request of prosecutors in Rome, who at the time were conducting a parallel investigation against Mered.
During the interrogation, Merhawi was shown a photo of Mered wearing a crucifix and a blue T-shirt, the same photograph released by the prosecutors in Palermo in 2014. In response, he said: “Yes, this is my brother.’’
The man on trial looks markedly different from the man in the photograph released by prosecutors and identified by Mered’s brother. Since the doubts were raised over the discrepancy, Ferrara has attempted to distance himself from the photo.
The NCA said it could not comment on an ongoing case. Italian prosecutors also declined to comment.