Notorious human trafficker sentenced to life in prison in absentia in Ethiopia

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam absconded from custody earlier this year

Migrants prepare food at a safe house in the Libyan town of Bani Walid in 2017. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants prepare food at a safe house in the Libyan town of Bani Walid in 2017. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

 

A notorious human trafficker, who absconded from custody earlier this year, has been sentenced to life without parole in absentia in Ethiopia.

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, an Eritrean who oversaw an extensive smuggling operation in Libya, was apprehended in Addis Ababa in February 2020, after a victim recognised him in the street and called the police.

He was found guilty of eight charges of trafficking individuals, including two in which victims died. His co-defendant Saba Mendir Hayle, who was accused of accepting money on his behalf, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

On Tuesday, another associate of Habtemariam, Tewelde Goitom – nicknamed “Walid” – was sentenced to 18 years in prison for five charges of trafficking.

Last year, The Irish Times published an investigation into the smuggling trade in Libya, which named both Habtemariam and Goitom.

Victims say the two operated in the country from roughly 2014 to 2018. They are accused of smuggling tens of thousands of people, with some later crossing the sea to Europe, and others getting trapped in government-run detention centres, or even dying under the traffickers’ custody.

Held in warehouses

The men used warehouses in a compound in Libyan town Bani Walid to hold thousands of people captive at a time, some for more than a year. While migrants and refugees initially agreed to pay a certain amount of money in return for quick passage from Sudan to Europe, they ended up being held hostage and often tortured while much greater sums were demanded from their families.

These ranged from $5,000 (€4,140) to $12,000 (€9,900), according to victims. The amount was often dependent on their nationality, with Somalis expected to pay the most because of the distance they travelled.

Habtemariam and Goitom’s lawyers deny the accusations against them.

Remote testifying was not allowed in the trials, meaning the witnesses who gave evidence were all Ethiopians who had returned to Ethiopia as part of a UN repatriation scheme. Others who suffered under the traffickers, and are now spread across Europe and Africa or remain in Libya, expressed unhappiness that they were not included.

Bribe concerns

Witnesses who participated in the trials raised concerns that both of the traffickers could bribe their way out of prison. They say they were offered money by associates of both men, who encouraged them to change their testimony or make it more vague.

In February, Habtemariam changed out of his prison clothes in a toilet block in Addis Ababa federal court before walking to freedom. His whereabouts are still unknown. The police officer guarding him at the time remains under investigation.

A woman resettled to Ireland last year says she was among Habtemariam’s victims, and was told she would be killed if she did not pay $5,000 in ransoms.

Daniel Ayano, a witness who testified against Habtemariam, said he was very depressed about the escape and the lack of international attention on the cases.

“To see a killer, your torturer and a killer of your brother get away makes you feel like there is no law . . . We are fearing what might happen to us.”