A notorious human trafficker has been extradited to the Netherlands, more than two years after he was apprehended in Ethiopia.
Tewelde Goitom, who goes by Welid, is known for carrying out horrific abuses against African refugees and migrants in Libya, as they attempted to reach Europe.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service said the 38-year-old was a “key suspect in an international investigation into serious migration crimes.
“The man is suspected of having smuggled Eritrean migrants from Africa to the Netherlands on a large scale. The migrants were extorted and subject to brutal violence in camps, including beatings, starvation and sexual violence.”
While Goitom was not named, a source with knowledge of the extradition confirmed that the statement referred to him.
The Netherlands Public Prosecution Service said its investigation is being conducted in collaboration with Italy, Europol, Interpol and the International Criminal Court, among others.
It also named Goitom’s former colleague, Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, who managed to escape from custody in Ethiopia last year, ahead of a court hearing, and is still at large.
Last year, Habtemariam — who was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment in Ethiopia — was placed on the Netherlands most wanted criminals list. Prosecutors opened up a tip line that people with information on his whereabouts could contact. He still has not been found.
Goitom was sentenced to 18 years in prison in Ethiopia, though victims called for his extradition, because they were worried that he would manage to bribe his way out of prison there.
The Irish Times first reported on Goitom and Habtemariam’s crimes in April 2020, in an investigation titled “Africa’s 21st Century Slave Trade”. It described how people fleeing wars and dictatorships in East Africa 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 ransoms of thousands of dollars.
The investigation named both Habtemariam and Goitom, who had just been apprehended — sparking a rare glimmer of hope for the many people who had suffered at their hands. Speaking to The Irish Times, victims estimated that the two men were responsible for transporting tens of thousands of people towards Europe between 2014 and 2018, some of whom died on the route.
In late 2020, this reporter attended both men’s trials in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Apart from an Ethiopian journalist helping with translation, The Irish Times was the only independent observer present — there were no attendees from embassies, human rights organisations or UN agencies.
Both men have victims who are now spread across Europe and Africa, including some in Ireland. One woman, resettled to Ireland in 2020, said she was held captive by Habtemariam for a year in Libya. She says he told her she would be killed if she did not pay $5,000 (€5,080) in ransoms.
Goitom arrived in Schiphol airport on Wednesday morning, and was arraigned on Thursday in front of an examining magistrate.
“I’m really happy,” said a refugee formerly held captive in Libya, who did not want to be named. He said Goitom’s transfer to the Netherlands meant a proper investigation there could reveal “many hidden things”.
But he also said there are a lot more questions that need to be answered. “Where is his money? Who [was] helping him? Which banks does he put the money in? [In which] country?” He called for further investigation into Goitom’s relationship with state authorities, including those in Eritrea — where Goitom, Habtemariam, and many of their victims come from. “It needs more investigation,” he said. “Still now [people] continue to be trafficked to Libya. Many people die in the Mediterranean Sea.”
In 2020, Ethiopian prosecutors told The Irish Times they were working with Interpol in an attempt to recover money the traffickers stashed away, which could then be returned to the people they extorted. However, they said full recovery was unlikely.
The money collected was deposited in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the UK and Sudan, they said. Funds were then moved on to Sweden and Canada, among other countries, through a network of the traffickers’ associates and relatives, according to Ethiopian prosecutors.