People-Smuggling Kingpin or Wrong Man?

People-Smuggling Kingpin or Wrong Man?People-Smuggling Kingpin or Wrong Man?

The slender Eritrean man with a close-cropped beard was arrested by Sudanese police on May 24 at a coffee shop in Khartoum.

Two weeks later, he was flown to Italy in what Italian and British officials hailed as a rare blow against human trafficking.

They believed they had caught Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a ruthless kingpin known as “the General” in an illegal network that earned millions of dollars smuggling migrants by boat to Europe via Libya, Reuters reported.

But friends and family say it is a case of mistaken identity. The man whisked to Rome on a special plane, they say, is impoverished 29-year-old refugee Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a one-time carpenter with no criminal background, who was living quietly in Khartoum seeking to join his siblings in the United States when he was snatched from the Asmara Corner Cafe.

The man’s Italian lawyer, Michele Calantropo, who met him for the first time in Rome on Friday, says his client is Berhe, not Mered, and he is innocent. He has requested his release from jail and a decision is expected this coming week.

Resolving the mystery is vital for both Italy and Britain. If they have the wrong man, it could be a huge blow in their battle against traffickers who have shipped more than 360,000 migrants to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.

While Italy seeks to clarify his identity using voice recognition software, the British, who took the lead role in hunting him down, are insistent he is a trafficking figure.

“We are confident in our intelligence,” said an official at the National Crime Agency in London.

Documents seen by Reuters and conversations with justice and security officials in both Italy and Britain show that the two countries have been working together since May 2015 to catch the general, using telephone intercepts to track his movements.

The last intercept came on May 23, placing him in Khartoum, said an Italian justice source who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the investigation.

Sudanese authorities, who had met Italian and British officials in London earlier in the year to discuss the case, were given the details and the next day arrested the suspect.

The Sudanese declined any comment on their activities.

That description of Berhe is at odds with the portrait of the general given by Italian authorities, who have charged Mered with human trafficking and abetting illegal immigration.

He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted and could also face possible murder charges linked to the sinking of boats in the Mediterranean, where thousands of migrants have perished at sea crossing in unsafe boats.