People trafficking: ‘They were killers. They have raped many women’

Suspected human smuggler’s pre-trial escape in Ethiopia distresses victims

Refugees and migrants across Europe and Africa have spoken of their upset after the escape of a suspected human smuggler in Ethiopia last month.

A woman resettled to Ireland last year says she was among the victims of Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, an Eritrean alleged to have extorted thousands of refugees and migrants who were hoping to reach Europe.

The woman, who does not to be named for privacy reasons, says she was held captive for one year in a warehouse in Libya, which was controlled by Habtemariam.

The woman says she was told she would be killed if she couldn't pay $5,000 (€4,140) in ransoms. Inside the warehouse, people say they were tortured and beaten, with punishments becoming more severe the longer their families failed to raise the money. After they paid, some people were put in boats to try to cross the Mediterranean Sea, while others were simply abandoned.


When the woman heard of Habtemariam's arrest in Addis Ababa in early 2020, she said she felt "happy" that he would finally face justice. Instead, he managed to escape before his trial, on eight charges of smuggling and trafficking, reached a verdict.

On February 18th, Habtemariam went to a toilet block ahead of a court hearing, changed from a prison uniform into clothes that had been left there for him, and walked out. At least one police officer is now in detention, suspected of aiding the escape. Habtemariam had been trying to bribe police and witnesses for months, according to prosecutors.

The suspected smuggler's escape raises questions about how much is being done to support African refugees who are exploited and enslaved while trying to reach safe countries, and have little access to legal alternative routes. European politicians regularly talk about the need to tackle the business models of smugglers, using that as justification for policies funding the Libyan coast guard, who intercept the boats of refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe and return them to indefinite detention in North Africa.

Links with officers

Since 2017, the EU has allocated close to ¤100 million to the Libyan coast guard, despite proven links between its officers and smugglers.

No international observers were present in the courtroom as Habtemariam’s trial progressed, apart from this reporter, who attended several hearings in October.

The prosecutor's office said there had been little interest from European embassies, and only the Netherlands had made a formal extradition request (when I asked whether it knew about the case, the Irish Embassy referred me to the Department of Foreign Affairs, where a spokesman said that Ireland supports "all" action to prevent trafficking and is involved in "trial monitoring" in Ethiopia. "The trafficking of women, men, girls, and boys, is a grave violation of human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," the spokesman said.)

Another suspected smuggler, Tewelde Goitom – an Eritrean who goes by the name Welid and was arrested in March last year – is still on trial in Addis Ababa.

Goitom worked in Bani Walid, the same Libyan town that Habtemariam was operating in. The men shared a compound and victims say they moved tens of thousands of refugees and migrants towards Europe between 2014 and 2018, including at the height of the so-called migration crisis.

Remote testifying was not allowed in either trial, meaning victims who are in Ireland and other parts of Europe, or who are still in north Africa, were unable to take part.

Last year, The Irish Times published an investigation detailing what is effectively a 21st-century slave trade in Libya. It described how refugees and migrants were being lured to Libya with false promises that they would reach Europe quickly, but they were locked up and tortured instead. Their families were forced to beg in churches and markets; sell land or family jewellery; take loans or turn to social media to crowd-fund hefty ransoms.

That investigation named both Habtemariam and Goitom, who had just been apprehended – sparking a rare glimmer of hope for victims who had suffered at their hands.

Beatings in captivity

Former captives have described both men beating and raping detainees, while leaving them without medical care, food and water, which resulted in deaths. Goitom, in particular, was accused of sexually abusing women and girls under his control. One witness, who testified in court, told The Irish Times that Goitom had ordered him to rape another detainee in front of everyone or face severe punishment.

"I haven't seen them but I have heard a lot about them," said a young Somali man who was also resettled to Ireland last year, speaking through Facebook messenger. "I have seen many people that they hurt hard. They were killers. They have raped many women, killed many innocent people."

Goitom is being tried under what victims say is a fake name, Amanuel Yirga Damte. He appeared to try to bribe witnesses outside an Addis Ababa courtroom while I was present last October, right before they testified, despite being handcuffed and watched over by a security guard.

"We came regardless of the risk," said Frezgi Ataklti, a 24-year-old witness from Ethiopia's Tigray region. "We are risking our lives facing a person that has already made threats to kill us."

An Eritrean victim, who is now in Finland, said he was held captive by Goitom for about six months between 2017 and 2018, after he had already paid another smuggler the money required to attempt to cross the sea. He paid $3,600 to Goitom. "No words can explain his behaviour, especially when violating the ladies. There were lots of ladies who were victimised by him."

He asked why human smugglers can’t be taken directly to Europe to face trial when they’re caught.

In two recent hearings, Goitom presented his defence. Three witnesses claimed Goitom had been working on a farm as a supervisor in Sudan, before travelling to Libya as a migrant himself. He said he failed to cross the Mediterranean Sea and instead worked in construction.*

International apathy

However, The Irish Times has confirmed with dozens of refugees and migrants, who were held in Bani Walid, that the man in court is the same person who they say held them hostage. Goitom and his lawyer declined to be interviewed for this reporting, as did Habtemariam and his lawyer, prior to Habtemariam’s escape.

Verdicts in both Goitom and Habtemariam’s cases are expected next month.

Daniel Ayano, one of the witnesses who testified against Habtemariam, said he is 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.”

He said witnesses had “wasted a lot of our time and energy being questioned by investigators. Rather than going back and forth they should have rendered a verdict quickly. I was summoned for questioning a lot of times to a point of exhaustion. I don’t think there will be justice after this.”

Ayano also saw this as a missed chance to dissuade others from making the journey to Libya.

“[Habtemariam’s] capture was very important since it [could have] stopped more victims from attempting what we attempted and suffering like we did,” Ayano said. “It wasn’t only Ethiopians who suffered and died in his hands, there were Eritreans, Somalis and other nationalities.”

Additional reporting by Lule Estifanos and Kaleab Girma

*This article was amended at 6pm on March 13th, 2021 due to an editing error. 

Sally Hayden’s reporting in Ethiopia was funded by Journalists for Transparency, a project of Transparency International, which is working in collaboration with 100Reporters, a US-based nonprofit news organisation