In June 2016 an Eritrean man was arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy after intelligence from Britain’s GCHQ and the National Crime Agency suggested he was a human trafficking kingpin, nicknamed “The General.”
The man — who prosecutors say is Medhanie Yehdego Mered — has always claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and on Tuesday, 5 February, Italian prosecutors announced they would be calling two senior officers from the Sudanese secret police to testify in the case.
Mered, 35, is accused of running a people trafficking network which sent thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean, mainly via Libya, to Europe. They often used overloaded or unseaworthy boats which sank, killing hundreds.
The network recruited migrants in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, all of whom paid large sums of money to the traffickers in the hope of starting a new life in Europe.
Mered ended up on an international wanted list after being identified as the man who organised the packing of migrants onto a boat that sank off Italy’s Lampedusa island in 2013, killing at least 360 people.
UK’s National Crime Agency Tapped Trafficker’s Phones
Medhanie was the name flagged by Britain’s National Crime Agency in 2016 when it heard someone going by that name calling the tapped phone of a suspected smuggler in Libya.
Prosecutors said two Eritrean translators had testified to police the arrested man’s voice matched a 2014 recording of “the General” captured by wiretap, though standard voice recognition software failed to produce a result.
The Eritrean has been in jail in Sicily since December 2016 and has repeatedly claimed the authorities have got the wrong man.
He claims his real name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe and he is a 29-year-old carpenter who was himself a migrant.
His lawyer, Michele Calantropo, said the only thing his client shared with the trafficker was a first name.
But the Italian prosecutors insist they have got the right man.
Mr. Calantropo said he had “no idea” what to expect from the Sudanese policemen, who played a key role in tracking down and arresting his client.
“Even if they do not claim he is Mered, they will say he is a bad man who deserves to be in prison,” Mr. Calantropo told the AFP news agency.
Can UK and Italy Trust the Sudanese?
Italy, Sudan and Britain hailed Mered’s arrest as the first big pay-off from a new joint operation which was targeting people smugglers.
On Tuesday, 5 February, Amjad Farid, a spokesman for Sudan Change Now, said the EU and the UK were “partners in crime” with the government of Sudanese dictator, Omar al-Bashir, and were paying him to use militias — including the dreaded Janjaweed — to stop migrants.
Mr. Calantropo told The Guardian the decision to let officers from Sudan’s secret police give evidence at a trial in Italy raised a “grave ethical question”.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 on war crimes charges over the long-running conflict in Darfur and was also indicted the following year for genocide.