Mistaken identity: Italian court mistakes Eritrean refugee for world's most dangerous people smuggler

Mistaken identity: Italian court mistakes Eritrean refugee for world's most dangerous people smuggler
In-depth: A man on trial in Italy as one of the world's most notorious people-smugglers may be a simple Eritrean migrant mis-identified by Sudan and extradited to Italy by mistake.
8 min read
09 February, 2018
In the dock: Is this man a human-trafficker or an innocent refugee? [Francesco Bellina]

"You don't have my identity, my real name, my real surname, so for me being here does not make sense, it's strange."

On October 3, after sixteen months in prison and twenty-two hearings, the man accused of being one of the world’s most wanted people-smugglers was allowed to speak to a court, and The New Arab was there.

When invited by the judge to make his declarations, the young man - shoulders bent, a pale blue rosary around his neck and a small paunch that he didn't have when he was arrested - immediately said the whole trial was a case of mistaken identity.

Interpreting from Tigrinya, Eritrea's official language, an Eritrean man living in Italy since the 1980s sat next to him behind the dock. The accused is supposedly Medhanie Yehdego Mered; an Eritrean smuggler long considered to be the coordinator of human trafficking and organiser of illegal migration between north African nations, particularly Libya, and European territory.

When arrested in June 2016, he kept asking why they were calling him by the name Medhanie Yehdego Mered. Family members and friends say he had been kidnapped by Sudanese security forces, deprived of his passport and then handed over to Italian police.

But instead of holding Medhanie Yehdego Mered in custody, it now appears that Italy, with the help of the British National Crime Agency (NCA), may be detaining another Eritrean citizen - Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, now a 31-year-old refugee who escaped, like many others, from his country of origin.

Sudanese authorities apparently never sent any identity papers to their international colleagues during his extradition process.

"If they arrested the real smuggler, I would congratulate with them and be happy: I am an anti-smugglers person," Meron Estefanos, a well-known Eritrean activist, radio journalist and author based in Sweden said on Monday 22 January in Palermo.

During the past decade, Estefanos has been in contact with thousands of refugees and interviewed hundreds of them.

"I knew the name of Mered for the first time in 2010 when he was trafficking Eritreans to Israel and [by] 2013 he was already a big one," she told the court. "I was in contact with him between February and June 2015. I can tell you where he is right now."

Estefanos is an investigative journalist, with a network of contacts across the Horn of Africa and neighbouring countries. But her strong testimony did not seem to do much to change the prisoner's fate.

The mother of the detained man waits at the courthouse [Francesco Bellina]

On the same day, and under oath, Robel Kelete, a witness and a victim of Mered's trafficking, recognised the smuggler Medhanie Yehdego Mered from a picture - but said he had never met the young man in the dock.

Kelete was tortured while being trafficked in Sinai. After making the journey via Libya - where he again met Mered - and Italy, he now lives in Sweden.

October 3, 2017, was the fourth anniversary of one of the largest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. At least 368 Eritrean refugees, crossing the sea from Misrata, Libya, to Italy lost their lives just off Lampedusa island. It was a symbolic coincidence that the first trial at the Court of Assizes of Palermo, on the nearby island of Sicily, began on that anniversary.

It was after that tragic event that the Italian government began the Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean to prevent mass deaths and patrol Europe's maritime border; at the same time, the public prosecutor in Palermo, Calogero Ferrara, started to investigate the journey's origins.

Italy's Coast Guard opened a parallel investigation in Rome regarding the smuggling of Eritreans by Medhanie Yehdego Mered. Four years later, with the two investigations reunited in the Court of Assizes in Palermo for the first time, defence lawyer Michele Calantropo opened his statement to the court by declaring the first important element for this trial was not to discuss the details, but about "the right of the name".

"Are we processing the right or the wrong person? Are we sure of the efficiency of the Sudanese authorities' system?" Calantropo almost shouted before the judge.

From the dock, Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe was shaking his head, visibly tired and disappointed at the whole situation.

"For the first time my client declared spontaneously that 'my name is another, I am not the person you are looking for at this trial'," Calantropo later told The New Arab.

"We already claimed it in front of the public prosecutor on his arrival in Italy, we claimed during the interrogation on the ninth of June 2016 at Rebibbia [the prison in Rome where he was initially detained]; we claimed it again then at the preliminary hearing; today in front of the judge at the Court of Assizes, we said it again: It's not him."

All the people in Asmara know that. Even the children of five years old know - that is Medhanie Berhe, an innocent man

When the Eritrean man was first arrested, his friends and some ex-clients and victims of the real smuggler immediately sent pictures of the two men to prove the detained man's innocence.

These photos aren't the only proof. Berhe's mother, Meaza Zerai Weldai, underwent a DNA test to prove the man in prison was her son. She managed to obtain a two-week visa from Eritrea to Italy with the support of the defence lawyer in October.

She also had a brief chance to visit him in prison.

"This is my son," she said in front of her son's picture in the hands of Italian police. The woman repeated it in Italian, Eritrea being a former Italian colony. Then she continued: "My son is a carpenter and not a human trafficker."

"All the people in Asmara [Eritrea's capital] know that. Even the children of five years old know - that is Medhanie Berhe, an innocent man," she told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica Palermo. The DNA results proved that the man who spent eighteen months in prison was indeed the son of Meaza Zerai Weldai. 

One month later, in November, voice analysis also confirmed that Berhe was a victim of mistaken identity.

When prosecutors first carried out the voice test a few months earlier, they used software which did not recognise the Tigrinya language. The analysis was therefore flawed, at best.

The comparison between the voice of Mered's wiretapped calls, recorded back in 2014, and the voice of the man now in prison was first analysed using Egyptian Arabic software - the language sounds nothing like Tigrinya and doesn't even share an alphabet.

The defence instead used the most sophisticated software, which included the Tigrinya language.

"With a margin of error of one percent, there is 99 percent certainty that Mered's voice is not that of the man arrested," Professor Milko Grimaldi of the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Research on Language at Salento University told the Court. "[This is] the highest result [that] can be obtained from this type of test."

With a margin of error of one percent, there is 99 percent certainty that Mered's voice is not that of the man arrested

Some months before the mother's DNA test and the two voice tests, The New Yorker interviewed Mered on the phone. The trafficker said he spent eight months in prison -likely in the UAE - in 2016 and was therefore not in Sudan when the man now facing trial was arrested.

Mered had been arrested by customs officials for possessing a fake Eritrean passport he used for travel and not as a people-smuggler. He was in his prison cell in the UAE when he learned he had supposedly already been extradited to Italy.

The man in custody in Italy was arrested in June 2016, but Mered told The New Yorker he was only released from prison in August 2016. Italian prosecutors have presented no wiretapped calls from the few months before the arrest - when Mered says he was in prison.

Mered's wife, now living in Sweden, was also contacted and confirmed that her husband was not the young man in prison in Italy.

The trial continues with Italian prosecutors insisting they have captured the right person - although they have not yet heard in court the testimonies collected by the defence throughout the past year and half.

On the most recent hearing on December 11, Mrs Magda M, an Eritrean woman who assisted the experts, was questioned about a word in both Tigrinya and Amharic languages heard on the wiretaps, "anice", used in colloquial language to ironically call a friend "boss".

"You usually use this word with a brother, a friend, with anyone," she told the court, under questioning by the defence lawyer.

The prosecutor asked the same question, to which she said it was used as a sign of respect. The next witness, Mr Matranga, who worked for the wiretapping investigation in Rome, declared that conversations of the defence lawyer's interpreter with The Guardian's journalist Lorenzo Tondo, were also wiretapped.

Tondo, who has followed the issue since the very beginning, has brought new contacts and proof to the case, becoming well-known among Eritreans. "Many people, especially refugees, of the Eritrean diaspora community have contacted me in different occasions," Tondo told The New Arab.

Eritrean community members recently published an online petition in English, Tigrinya and Arabic, calling on the Italian government and European Union to immediately release Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, an innocent man, held in prison wrongly and as the victim of mistaken identity.

Their petition says that Italian authorities continue to reject testimony. They seek also apologies and compensation for wrongful imprisonment.  

The only common traits between the two seem to be that they are two Eritrean men named Medhanie. But Italian prosecutors so far do not seem to doubt they might have committed a mistake.

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne