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Refugee Taken for a Smuggling Kingpin Starts Second Year in Jail

One year after European authorities helped arrest a suspected people smuggler in Sudan and brought him to Italy for trial, evidence is mounting that he is a victim of mistaken identity, yet he remains in jail. Investigative journalist Eric Reidy examines why.

Written by Eric Reidy Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
This picture released by Italian police on June 8, 2016, shows a man presented as Medhanie Yehdego Mered escorted by policemen upon his extradition from Sudan to Italy late on June 6, 2016. AFP/Polizia di Stato

One year ago, the police forces of two European countries, supported by their Sudanese counterparts, worked together on a mission that was supposed to take down a people-smuggling kingpin. Instead, they captured a man whom overwhelming evidence suggests is an innocent refugee. A full year later, nobody wants to admit the possibility of a mistake.

On May 24, 2016, Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old from Eritrea, was sitting in a cafe in Khartoum when police swept in and arrested him.

For two weeks, his sister Seghen scoured the police stations where migrants and refugees are regularly detained in the city looking for information about what had happened. “I searched everywhere in Khartoum to look for him,” Seghen told me. “I told them that my brother Medhanie is missing and that he was arrested. They told me that they don’t know anybody with that name.”

Seghen feared the worst, not knowing whether her brother was alive or dead. And then, on June 7, he suddenly reappeared – handcuffed and being led from an airplane by Italian police onto tarmac in Rome. His picture was splashed across the front pages of news websites under headlines hailing the arrest of the people-smuggling kingpin Medhanie Yehdego Mered. “When I saw his picture I was shocked because my brother is not a human trafficker,” Seghen said.

The arrest was supposed to be monumental. It was the first time European police had been able to apprehend one of the powerful smugglers facilitating and profiting from the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Investigators from Italy and the U.K. had been trying to track Mered for years. When they thought they had an opening, they called on their Sudanese counterparts for help, who moved in for the arrest.

But within hours of the photos of the “smuggler” on the tarmac hitting the internet, people started to come forward saying they knew either Berhe or Mered and that a mistake had been made. “I have almost 400 people writing to me saying: ‘I know this guy, he grew up with me,’” Swedish-Eritrean activist Meron Estefanos told the Guardian at the time. “This is the wrong person.” The two men look nothing alike.

In the months that followed, more and more evidence surfaced that the Italian and British police had made a colossal mistake. But one year later, the Sicilian prosecutors who led the investigation have yet to admit an error, and Berhe is still in prison in the port city of Palermo, charged with people smuggling and facilitating transnational organized crime. He could spend the next 25 years behind bars. For now, the trial that will decide his fate is crawling forward at a glacial pace.

I recently wrote about Berhe’s story in a feature story for New Republic. My investigation revealed how the evidence against him is based on shoddy and selective translations of phone calls intercepted by Italian investigators and chats lifted from his social media accounts.

The conversations took place in Tigrinya, the main language spoken in Eritrea. When they were translated into Italian, the prosecutors focused on segments containing keywords related to smuggling. They neglected to translate the context of the conversations, which clearly show that Berhe was simply another Eritrean refugee. The translation into Italian is so riddled with errors that it is at times incomprehensible.

In a series of articles about the case, the Guardian also obtained evidence of private chats discussing the mistaken arrest from the Facebook account of the real smuggler, Mered, and revealed photos of him at a family wedding that bear no resemblance to the man in custody.

A different Italian prosecutor’s office in Rome that was conducting a separate investigation into Mered’s activities also suggested, based on photographic evidence, that the wrong man may have been arrested; the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided a notarized copy of Berhe’s national identity card, confirming that he is not Mered; Facebook data recently submitted to the court in Sicily show that Berhe accessed his account from Eritrea at a time when Mered was known to be in Libya and Sudan; and a woman identified by the prosecutors as Mered’s partner and the mother of his son recently told the Guardian that the wrong man is in prison.

Despite all of this, the Italian prosecutors leading the case still insist they captured the right man. “He says he is not Mered … We say he is Mered,” one of the prosecutors told me.

There is a lot at stake in the trial, primarily the careers and reputations of the prosecutors and the fate of an innocent man. The case also calls into question the E.U.’s strategy of working with repressive governments to end clandestine migration and the logic of treating migration as a criminal justice issue rather than as a humanitarian concern.

Still, Berhe’s story has not attracted much attention outside of the Guardian and my own reporting. No human rights or migration advocacy organizations have taken on the cause of petitioning for Berhe’s freedom or tried to raise the profile of his case in Italy or the international community. After the initial celebratory articles about Mered’s arrest, several media organizations reported on the allegations of mistaken identity, and in January an Italian M.P. called for a parliamentary inquiry into the case. Five months later, the Italian government has yet to respond, and the case has all but fallen off the radar.

Berhe’s story is inconvenient. Virtually the only point on which people on all sides of the migration debate can agree is that smuggling bosses such as Mered are criminals and bad men. Berhe’s potential advocates are overburdened by their efforts to try to secure access to asylum for vulnerable people and wary of taking a step that could see them labeled as opposing the crackdown on smugglers. There is very little appetite to criticize and call into question the effort to take down the kingpins of the trade, even, apparently, when things go drastically wrong.

Michele Calantropo, Berhe’s lawyer, thinks the prosecutors are slowing the trial down as much as possible to avoid admitting – or having the court decide – that they made a terrible error in the biggest anti-people-smuggling case to date.

“We spent six months for only three witnesses,” Calantropo told me recently. There are more than 40 people who need to appear before the court. At this pace, the first phase of the trial could continue for three to four years – while Berhe remains in prison – before the court will have to let him out on procedural grounds. Meanwhile, Berhe’s family is left to wait as he begins another year of his life whittling away time behind bars.

“It has been an awful year,” Seghen told me recently over the phone. Her brother’s absence has affected the entire family. They worry about his mental and physical well-being in prison and find it hard to understand how this is happening in a country where they believed there would be justice.

“Every court date we are hopeful,” she said. “Medhanie’s case is clear, but still the prosecutors think he is Medhanie Mered. I don’t know what we are supposed to do to make them believe he is not.”

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