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Kafka in Sicily: New Evidence But No End for Refugee in Smuggler Trial

After more than a year in jail despite extensive evidence of being a victim of mistaken identity, a man extradited from Sudan appeared before Italian judges for the 22nd time this week. Eric Reidy reveals new evidence showing he is a refugee not a smuggling kingpin.

Written by Eric Reidy Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
View of the city of Palermo, Sicily. OLIVIERO OLIVIERI / ROBERT HARDING

On the first morning of his new trial this week, the Eritrean man entered the courtroom in the Sicilian city of Palermo looking tired and concerned. It was the 22nd time he had stood before judges since he was arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy in June last year.

Prosecutors say that the man on trial is Medhanie Yehdego Mered, one of the most prolific people smugglers in the Mediterranean. The man’s attorney says that he is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, an innocent Eritrean refugee and the victim of a botched police operation.

The claims of mistaken identity are supported by extensive evidence uncovered by journalists in the past year, including a new document that surfaced in recent weeks and is reported here for the first time. The document is the official transcript of a Dutch police interrogation of Mered’s brother, Merhawi Yehdego Mered, that took place in the Netherlands in September 2015.

During the interrogation, Merhawi acknowledges knowing about his brother’s smuggling activities and identifies his brother’s picture from a newspaper clipping, saying: “Yes, that is my brother.”

The picture, showing a man in a blue shirt with a large silver cross around his neck, has been one of the primary sources of controversy in the case. Italian prosecutors initially obtained the photo from a social media profile they identified as belonging to Mered in 2014 and circulated it widely when publicizing the results of their investigation.

On the left is a Facebook picture of refugee Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. On the right is the Facebook picture authorities say is people smuggler Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

But the man who was extradited from Sudan, and is currently standing trial in Italy, looks nothing like the man in the photo. The discrepancy fueled the first speculations about mistaken identity after photos and videos of the extradition were published in the media.

Since initial questions were raised, Italian prosecutors have attempted to distance themselves from the photo. “That picture is someone we thought could be the guy. But then again, it’s a picture on Facebook, like millions of other pictures,” Calogero Ferrara, one of the prosecutors working on the case, told me when I interviewed him while working on an investigation for the New Republic last December.

The Dutch interrogation transcript appears to offer solid evidence that the man in the photo is indeed Mered. The document adds to a string of recent revelations that contradict the prosecution’s version of events. In July, the New Yorker published an investigation that claimed Mered was in prison in the United Arab Emirates for traveling on a fraudulent passport at the time of his supposed extradition from Sudan. The report included interviews with Mered and his wife, who both stated that the wrong man is on trial and that Mered himself is now free.

The Guardian has also published a series of articles documenting evidence – from Facebook data to the testimony of Mered’s former clients – that support the claim that the man in prison is actually Berhe. My investigation for the New Republic uncovered that the Italian prosecutors used selective and inaccurate translations of phone conversations and social media chats while building their case. The full and accurate translations of the evidence reveal that the man on trial is, in fact, Berhe, an innocent refugee not involved in people smuggling.

It is unclear, however, whether the Dutch document will be able to be submitted to the court as evidence. In Italian trials, both the prosecution and the defense have the right to call witnesses, but documents originating outside of the investigation can only be submitted as evidence if agreed upon by both sides. The defense lawyer in the case, Michele Calantropo, is planning on presenting the Dutch document to the court, but unless the prosecution consents – or Mered’s brother, Merhawi, agrees to testify – it may end up not being considered.

The New Trial

On Monday, Berhe sat in a glass enclosure in the courtroom, wearing dark pants and a dark shirt. Aside from the lawyers and the judges, there were only three other people in the room.

The hearing was supposed to be the first in a new trial. In June, after 10 months of proceedings, the prosecution requested that the case be moved to a different court that handles more severe criminal offenses, such as murders and kidnappings. The prosecution did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails asking for a comment on why they requested the trial be moved.

The hearing on September 11 began more than a half an hour late and lasted only 13 minutes. This time, the prosecutor requested that the trial be joined with another trial against Mered initiated by prosecutors in Rome (The Italian legal system is decentralized, and prosecution offices do not usually coordinate on investigations. So, more than one case can be opened in different jurisdictions at the same time against a defendant for similar crimes).

The president of the court accepted the request and postponed the trial until October 3. Berhe, again, left the courtroom in handcuffs.

Calantropo, Berhe’s lawyer, expects the legal proceedings to move more quickly now that there will only be one trial. And the new court has accepted the evidence that was already submitted to the previous court, so the hearings will pick up with new witnesses instead of having to start over from the beginning. “This is very good,” Calantropo said, “because we will not waste more time.”

Still, the legal proceedings will likely drag on for many more months before the court reaches a verdict. There are close to 50 witnesses who need to testify, many of them coming from other countries, and some from outside of the European Union. Given this logistical complexity, Calantropo said that it is impossible to estimate when the trial will reach a conclusion.

In the meantime, Berhe has already spent 15 months in Italian prison. “My client is very upset at the moment,” Calantropo said in a phone interview following the hearing. “He doesn’t understand why there are all these complications when we have a lot [of evidence] about his innocence. [This] fact is very simple; the trial is not.”

Francesco Bellina contributed reporting from Palermo. Read Eric Reidy’s earlier story about the case for Refugees Deeply: Refugee Taken for a Smuggling Kingpin Starts Second Year in Jail

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