Date: Friday, 12 July 2019
Judge acquits Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe of being a human trafficking kingpin
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
The arrest of Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in 2016 was presented to the press as a brilliant coup by Italian and British authorities, who mistook him for one of the world�s most-wanted human traffickers, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, aka the General.
On Friday, Judge Alfredo Montalto of the criminal court of Palermo, rejected prosecutors� claims and ordered the immediate release of Berhe, who was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, on 24 May 2016 with help of the British National Crime Agency and the Sudanese police.
�It was a case of mistaken identity,� the judge said. �The man in prison was wrongly arrested.�
Berhe was found guilty on Friday of a much lesser charge of aiding illegal immigration for having helped his cousin to reach Libya, but because he had already served three years in prison, the judge ordered his immediate release.
�I have no words to explain the way I feel,� said Hiwett Tesfamariam, Berhe�s sister, who travelled from Norway for the verdict. �It was a nightmare. A real nightmare.�
'�After three years finally the judge confirmed what we have been saying: we had a farmer in jail and a smuggler at large,� said Michele Calantropo, Berhe�s lawyer.
Within a few hours of Berhe�s arrest, hundreds of Mered�s victims claimed the wrong man had been detained. According to Berhe�s family, far from being a notorious trafficker he was an Eritrean refugee who earned his living on a dairy farm and working occasionally as a carpenter.
Among many factors that pointed to his innocence, including two DNA tests and an array of witnesses, was a documentary by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, in collaboration with the Guardian, which revealed that the �real� Mered was living in the Ugandan capital, spending his substantial earnings in Kampala nightclubs while Berhe faced up to 15 years in jail.
The most recent, and perhaps most crucial, proof of Berhe�s innocence was a voice analysis of him and Mered, who had been caught on a wiretap in 2014. The result unequivocally concluded that the man in prison was not the trafficker.
Despite the fact he had not been able to provide a single witness to testify against him, at the end of his five-hour closing remarks on 17 June the prosecutor Calogero Ferrara dismissed suggestions they had apprehended the wrong man and demanded a 14-year prison term for Berhe.
But Berhe�s saga, a case that has become one of the most spectacular examples of mistaken identity in the last 30 years, may not be over. Relatives have asked that Berhe be awarded damages for his wrongful detention and that an investigation be opened into Sicily�s top prosecutors who, they argue, are guilty of having bungled a high-profile arrest, covered it up and framed an innocent man for the ruthless and lucrative crimes of another.
A Palermo judge has acquitted an Eritrean man of being a human trafficking kingpin, confirming he was the victim of mistaken identity when he was arrested more than three years ago in a joint operation between Italian and British authorities.
The arrest of Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in 2016 was presented to the press as a brilliant coup by Italian and British authorities, who mistook him for one of the world�s most-wanted human traffickers, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, aka the General.Last modified on Fri 12 Jul 2019 10.29 EDT