Date: Wednesday, 11 April 2018
One of the world’s most wanted people smugglers, who Italian prosecutors claim to have in jail in Sicily, is living freely in Uganda and spending his substantial earnings in nightclubs, according to multiple witnesses.
Prosecutors in Palermo announced the capture of Medhanie Yehdego Mered in Sudan in June 2016, describing it as “the arrest of the year”. The suspect was extradited to Italy with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK’s National Crime Agency, which had participated in the operation.
But a documentary by the Swedish public broadcaster SVT in collaboration with Guardian reporters reveals that the 35-year-old Eritrean known as “the General” has never been arrested by European police forces.
Instead, a 29-year-old refugee, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, was extradited to Italy, where he remains in prison charged with human trafficking offences. SVT is also in possession of a file revealing how a European police authority is aware that the real smuggler is still at large but cannot convince Italian prosecutors to issue a new arrest warrant.
The SVT reporter Ali Fegan and the Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos travelled to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in March and collected dozens of testimonies from Ugandan and Eritrean citizens who claim to have seen and met Mered.
The investigation into Mered’s people-smuggling ring began after a shipwreck on 3 October 2013 in which 368 migrants died off the island of Lampedusa. Italian prosecutors in Palermo led the hunt.
After two years, during which they intercepted more than 20,000 phone calls, in June 2016 the prosecutors in Palermo announced the capture of Mered. The NCA described the detained man as “one of the world’s most wanted people smugglers”.
Since news of the arrest first broke there have been serious doubts over the man’s identity. Dozens of Mered’s victims claim the wrong man is on trial and, according to the family of the extradited suspect, the man being held in Sicily is an Eritrean refugee who made his living milking cows.
The Guardian spoke to at least 10 people, including employees of an NGO run by Eritreans in Kampala, who said they had made private inquiries and were confident Mered was in the capital.
One witness said Mered had made an impromptu appearance at the Hotel Diplomate in Muyenga, an upscale Kampala suburb. While there, the witness added, Mered had tried to chat up two Eritrean women. He reportedly told the women that his wife ‘‘wasn’t minding him getting other girls’.”
“He was very drunk,” a witness said. “He tried to pick the girls up [to dance], but he was totally wasted.
“He is some kind of a wild celebrity and no one tries to arrest him,” the witness added. “We can’t just say we heard. I can say in absolute terms Mered is here,” another witness said.
Other places Mered has been seen include Molober, a bar located off Muyenga Road in Kabalagala, a popular hangout with Eritreans, and Sami’s bar in the same area.
Asked why they do not report it to the police when they see Mered, a witness told us many Eritreans in Uganda do not see him as evil. “To many Eritreans, he is a product of necessity. [It is] an unfortunate situation, but he helps them run away from worse conditions at home,” one said.
Another witness said some people just didn’t know who to report to and would fear retribution if they did.
“Even if we tell [Uganda] police, they will not arrest him,” a witness said. “He is rich and can pay anyone to get his freedom.”
One witness said Mered moved with four or three Ugandan guards. “[The guards] are Ugandans and not from a registered security company. He keeps changing guards.”
Mered’s wife lives in Sweden and on multiple occasions has publicly claimed that European authorities had arrested the wrong person. According to SVT there is new information that she had made the Swedish police aware of the mistake more than 18 months ago.
SVT reporters also interviewed the Palermo prosecutor, Calogero Ferrara, who led the investigation, about operations against people smugglers. But when the reporter asked for a comment on the arrest of Mered, Ferrara ended the interview and told the reporters to leave his office.
Berhe’s mother, Meaza Zerai Weldai, travelled from Eritrea to Palermo in October for a DNA test that confirmed her relation to the man in prison, proving that he is not Mered.
According to the SVT documentary, made with the support of Italy’s DIG awards for investigative journalists, Swedish authorities supplied the Sudanese telephone number that was used to geolocate the man arrested in Sudan.
Both the NCA and Italian prosecutors said they could not comment on an ongoing case.
Additional reporting by Alon Mwesigwa in Kampala