An Eritrean man, known as the “General” and accused of being a human trafficking kingpin, was telling the truth when he claimed it was a case of mistaken identity, an Italian court has ruled.
Carpenter Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre was arrested in Sudan in 2016 on suspicion of being at the heart of one of the world’s largest human trafficking networks. But after a 21-month trial, the court finally ruled on Friday that police had the wrong man.
Behre was accused of being Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who was in jail in the UAE in 2016. Three years after he was extradited to Italy, a Palermo court accepted Behre’s argument that this was a case of mistaken identity.
It did, however, give him a five-year prison sentence for aiding illegal immigration.
The judge ordered he be immediately set free, having spent more than three years behind bars already.
Behre’s friends hugged and cheered in the court gallery as the sentence was read out inside a massive bunker, built in the 1980s for the maxi-trial against the mafia.
His sister, who was wearing a T-shirt calling for his liberation, wept with joy.
Behre quietly thanked and shook hands with his interpreter. He was then taken by police van to prison to collect his belongings.
He had been accused of running a vast trafficking network, with branches in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and the UAE, as well as Europe.
Italy, Sudan and the UK hailed his capture at the time as the stellar result of a joint operation which had dealt a significant blow to the people-smuggling business.
Despite differences in appearance between the two men, and DNA evidence supporting Berhe’s case, Italian prosecutors stuck to their guns throughout and called for a 14-year jail sentence.
On Friday, they said they would wait for the court’s reasoning to be published before deciding whether to appeal.
Mered ended up on an international wanted list after being identified as the man who organised the packing of migrants onto a boat that sank off Italy’s coast in October 2013, killing at least 360 people in one of the worst such disasters in the Mediterranean.
The “cynical and unscrupulous” Mered had been “continuously and constantly reaping vast profits while showing a contempt for human life”, according to a joint statement by Sudan, Italy and Britain announcing his arrest in May 2016.
But the images broadcast by Italian police of a thin young man with frizzy hair, looking frail as he walked off the plane in handcuffs, sparked confusion and disbelief within the Eritrean diaspora around the world.
Those who had had dealings with Mered said it was not him. Behre’s family recognised him instantly.
According to the US, Italian and Swedish investigative journalists, the real Mered spent part of 2016 in prison in Dubai for using a false passport and now lives in Uganda.
DNA evidence also suggested the wrong man was behind bars.
Further tests, on Mered’s three-year-old son, who lives in Sweden, showed the defendant was not his father.
A New Yorker investigative reporter was told by “the General” himself in 2017 that the Italians had the wrong man.
“They should just have said ‘we made a mistake’,” lawyer Michele Calantropo told the AFP news agency on Thursday, before the verdict.
Calantropo insisted that the man behind bars has only one thing in common with the trafficker – his first name, Medhanie.
“This is one of the biggest injustices on the face of the earth,” said the lawyer.
Al Jazeera and news agencies