Eritrean farmer released from Italian prison in mistaken identity case
Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe acquitted of being a human trafficking kingpin
Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe during his trial in Sicily: now held in a deportation centre. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP
An Eritrean farmer who served three years in prison after he was wrongly identified as one of the world’s most wanted human smugglers has been cleared by a court in Italy, but he now faces deportation.
Mr Berhe was arrested in a coffee shop in the Sudanese capital Khartoum and extradited to Italy in mid-2016, after he was incorrectly identified as a smuggler called Medhanie Yehdego Mered, known as “the General”. The search for Mered had begun after a deadly 2013 shipwreck, when 368 people died close to the Italian island Lampedusa.
Italian prosecutors hailed it as “the arrest of the year”, following a joint operation between British and Italian authorities.
In subsequent years, hundreds of those smuggled by Mered, as well as an array of other witnesses – including Mered’s brother, his wife, and even the smuggler himself – spoke out to say the wrong man washad been locked up, but prosecutors doubled down.
“It was a case of mistaken identity,” Judge Alfredo Montalto said in Palermo’s criminal court on Friday. “The man in prison was wrongly arrested.”
“After three years, finally the judge confirmed what we have been saying,” said Mr Berhe’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo. “We had a farmer in jail and a smuggler at large.”
Despite this, the judges said on Friday that Mr Berhe was guilty of aiding people smuggling, by helping his cousin get to Libya. They gave him a five-year sentence and a €100,000 fine. As he had served three years in prison already, he was allowed to leave, but was taken directly to a deportation centre.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist based in Sweden, travelled to Kampala, Uganda, in 2018, and gathered evidence showing that Mered, the real trafficking kingpin, was still living there and walking free.
“The whole case was unjust, the prosecutor took this case personally and acted crazy,” she told The Irish Times on Monday. “It is a shame that the judge allowed this trial to go on for over three years, it is a shame that the judge found him guilty and sentenced him for five years on bogus charges of non-existing people that he is alleged to have smuggled.
“All I can say is this case showed us that the so-called European humanitarian countries like Sweden, UK, Netherlands, Italy and many others victimised an innocent person.”
Ms Estefanos said she doubted Mr Berhe would have been released if it had not been for all the media coverage, and now she was calling for an inquiry. “I believe and will fight for an inquiry [into] every European country involved in this case,” she said.
Ms Estefanos said she was wiretapped by prosecutors as the case was ongoing, as was anda journalist with the Guardian. She wants prosecutors to be investigated for abuse of power.
However, the biggest fight was to get compensation for Mr Berhe and clear him of all charges, she said. “[He is] very traumatised and depressed, [he] has given up on the European system.”