- A Palermo judge has acquitted an Eritrean man of being a human trafficking kingpin, confirming he was the victim of mistaken identity when he was arrested more than three years ago in a joint operation between Italian and British authorities.
The arrest of Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in 2016 was presented to the press as a brilliant coup by Italian and British authorities, who mistook him for one of the world’s most-wanted human traffickers, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, aka the General. On Friday, Judge Alfredo Montalto of the criminal court of Palermo, rejected prosecutors’ claims and ordered the immediate release of Berhe, who was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, on 24 May 2016 with help of the British National Crime Agency and the Sudanese police. “It was a case of mistaken identity.
The man in prison was wrongly arrested” the judge said. Berhe was found guilty on Friday of a much lesser charge of aiding illegal immigration for having helped his cousin to reach Libya, but because he had already served three years in prison, the judge ordered his immediate release. “I have no words to explain the way I feel,” said Hiwett Tesfamariam, Berhe’s sister, who travelled from Norway for the verdict. “It was a nightmare. A real nightmare. After three years finally the judge confirmed what we have been saying: we had a farmer in jail and a smuggler at large,” said Michele Calantropo, Berhe’s lawyer. Within a few hours of Berhe’s arrest, hundreds of Mered’s victims claimed the wrong man had been detained. According to Berhe’s family, far from being a notorious trafficker he was an Eritrean refugee who earned his living on a dairy farm and working occasionally as a carpenter.
Among many factors that pointed to his innocence, including two DNA tests and an array of witnesses, was a documentary by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, in collaboration with the Guardian, which revealed that the “real” Mered was living in the Ugandan capital, spending his substantial earnings in Kampala nightclubs while Berhe faced up to 15 years in jail.