That ‘Human Smuggler’ Extradited to Italy? Sudan Might Have Gotten the Wrong Guy.

Italian and British authorities are investigating whether they have been holding an innocent refugee, not a top human smuggler.

MeredMedhanie
MeredMedhanie

Authorities have long criticized human smugglers who help migrants -- many of whom die at sea -- attempting to reach Europe. Now the celebrated arrest of one of those smugglers may turn out to be an embarrassment for Italy and Britain, who on Thursday were forced to investigate whether they were holding in detention not a top human trafficker, but an innocent refugee.

Swedish broadcaster Meron Estefanos was the first to cast doubt on the purported arrest of Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who has claimed to be responsible for helping 13,000 people get from Africa to Italy.

Italian officials had sought Mered’s arrest for more than a year, and on Wednesday triumphantly announced they had captured what Italian prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi called “the boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya.”

Authorities have long criticized human smugglers who help migrants — many of whom die at sea — attempting to reach Europe. Now the celebrated arrest of one of those smugglers may turn out to be an embarrassment for Italy and Britain, who on Thursday were forced to investigate whether they were holding in detention not a top human trafficker, but an innocent refugee.

Swedish broadcaster Meron Estefanos was the first to cast doubt on the purported arrest of Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who has claimed to be responsible for helping 13,000 people get from Africa to Italy.

Italian officials had sought Mered’s arrest for more than a year, and on Wednesday triumphantly announced they had captured what Italian prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi called “the boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya.”

But then things got complicated.

Estefanos, who immigrated from Eritrea herself, reported that almost 400 people had written to her to say authorities were holding Eritrean refugee Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, and not Mered.

Berhe, whose name is similar to the human trafficker’s, was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, last month. On Wednesday he was extradited to Italy.

After seeing his photo in news stories, Berhe’s friends and family members began coming forward to say that the man arrested was not the notorious smuggler. Their proof: Photos of the detainee that do not resemble Mered, including one of Berhe at a wedding. That picture resembles the man in custody, but not the human trafficker.  

“It’s the wrong guy,” said Fshaye Tasfai, Berhe’s cousin, told The Guardian. “It’s incredible – he’s not a human trafficker. He’s from my family. He lived in my father’s house.”

Italian and British authorities are now looking into whether they have the wrong man.

“The identification of the suspect, his arrest, his handing over and his extradition to Italy were communicated to us in an official manner by the NCA and the Sudanese authorities through Interpol,” Lo Voi, the chief prosecutor in the Italian city of Palermo, told Italy’s Ansa News agency. He was referring to the joint operation by Britain’s National Crime Agency and the Sudanese National Police.

Photo credit: ITALIAN POLICE/NATIONAL CRIME AGENCY/EPA

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert

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