The trial of an alleged Eritrean smuggler extradited to Italy will formally begin in Sicily this week, with two of the smuggler’s former victims expected to testify that the Italians have captured the wrong man.
Italian prosecutors, British police and British diplomats all still claim that the man to stand trial on Monday is Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a notorious 35-year-old people smuggler who has sent thousands of Eritreans through the Sahara desert, and then onwards across the Mediterranean to Sicily.
Eritrean accused of being people smuggling kingpin says he is innocent
But two of the smuggler’s victims, along with the detainee’s family, have flown to Sicily to testify that – in a bungled case of mistaken identity – the detainee is in fact Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old former dairy worker with no connection to the smuggling business.
If the judge accepts their testimony, the case will be a considerable embarrassment for Italian investigators, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and the British embassy in Sudan, who all claimed to have played a crucial role in the arrest and extradition of the man from Khartoum last month.
The NCA had previously hailed the capture of “one of the world’s most wanted people smugglers”, lauding their own “substantial” contribution, while British diplomats in Khartoum praised the Foreign Office’s “crucial” support role.
But two of the smugglers’ former victims have landed in Sicily to testify in court that Italy and Britain have bungled the operation and arrested the wrong man.
Ambesajer Yemane, a 23-year-old Eritrean refugee sent to Europe by Mered in 2013, said: “I don’t know the guy they have arrested. I just saw him in an article on Facebook and I immediately thought: this is not Mered!”
A second witness, whose name is known to the Guardian and will be given to the court, asked not to be named specifically because he believes the real smuggler is still at large in Sudan, and could take revenge on his family there. But he also confirmed that Italy had arrested the wrong man, and has flown to Sicily to explain this to the court.
The second witness said he had met the real smuggler twice. The first time was in 2011, when Mered had played a role in the witness’s abduction and torture in the Sinai desert, where hundreds of Eritrean migrants have been kidnapped for ransom while trying to reach Israel.
After escaping and eventually making his way to Libya, the witness was surprised to encounter Mered in Tripoli, where the smuggler had relocated his business.
“When I arrived in Tripoli I was shocked to see Medhanie Mered and I was told he was the one who will smuggle us into Italy,” said the witness. “We stayed at the [safehouse] of Mered – he was running a grocery store together with a Libyan man called Ali … They started subcontracting us to work at a construction, we started building houses for them, and in return we received food and we got to take a shower.”
He added: “I was afraid when I saw him. He looked crazy. He walked with a gun and he was shooting in the air. He smoked a lot of hash.”
Commenting on these claims, Berhe’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo, said: “Until now we have found only elements to confirm that my client Medhanie Berhe is not Mered the human smuggler.”
But the Italian authorities continue to maintain they have arrested the right person, even refusing to allow Berhe’s sister to visit him – on the basis that she asked to see someone other than the man they believe to have in their custody.
“This is incredible,” said Hiwett Tesfamariam, Berhe’s sister. “I came all the way from Sweden to meet him. This is not Mered. It’s my brother and he is a refugee.”
Asked to respond to the claims, Maurizio Scala, Palermo’s deputy chief prosecutor, said: “We are still leading appropriate investigations about the real identity of the suspect. According to our investigations, he has contacts with the human traffickers. As for the name, we have already pointed out the possibility that he could have used different identities.”
But Calantropo said that while the accused man had indeed been briefly in touch with actual smugglers, he did so to ensure the release of three friends held for ransom by smugglers. It is common practice for members of the Eritrean diaspora to call smugglers to assist their kidnapped relatives and friends.
Calantropo said: “[Berhe] is not a smuggler … He was contacted by the smugglers so that he could talk with his friends. One of them didn’t pay the entire sum of money needed for the travel and he wanted Medhanie to contact his family to make sure they sent the money.”
Contacted by the Guardian on Sunday, neither the NCA nor Britain’s ambassador to Sudan responded to questions about their role in the case.
The second witness, who was handed to Bedouin traffickers in Egypt in 2011, said he still wanted to bring the real smuggler to justice. He claimed that Mered, having taken him to the Sinai desert, had left him with people who were supposed to take him to Israel, but instead subjected him to horrific torture.
“Mered assured us that he was going to sort it out with the Bedouins and that we will be released within minutes,” said the witness. “We waited for over one hour and called him back. Unfortunately his phone was off.”
Months of torture followed. “They would force us to call our family members as we were getting tortured and they would have to listen to our screams,” said the witness, in testimony consistent with multiple accounts gathered separately by rights researchers. “Women would get gang raped and their family members would be forced to listen to their loved one as she is getting raped.”