Exclusive: Pictures seem to show that man on trial is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe rather than smuggler Medhanie Yehdego Mered
New photographs appear to show one of north Africa’s most wanted people-smugglers celebrating at a family wedding, giving fresh momentum to claims that a man accused of being the smuggler, and set to face trial in Italy this week, is the victim of mistaken identity.
Prosecutors in Sicily will begin a second round of legal proceedings on Wednesday against a man they allege to be Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a 35-year-old Eritrean who is said to be a notorious people-smuggler in north Africa.
An Eritrean man was extradited in June from Sudan, with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), in a move that attracted intense media attention at the time. But the family of the extradited man have always maintained that he is in fact 29-year-old Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.
Some of the smuggler’s former victims have also testified that the man on trial is not the man who smuggled them and an estimated 13,000 others between Sudan, Libya and southern Europe. One asked to remain anonymous because he fears the real smuggler is still at large in Sudan, and could intimidate his family there.
Before the second round of court proceedings, the prosecution’s case has been further weakened by the emergence of nine photographs that allegedly show Mered celebrating at his nephew’s wedding in October 2015. The alleged smuggler can be seen dancing, posing, holding a drape and being spoon-fed cake by his sister.
The man in the photographs looks markedly different to the man facing trial in Italy but closely resembles the person described as Mered in wanted posters released by Italian prosecutors in previous years.
Two guests at the wedding said the man photographed at the celebrations was the smuggler the Italians claim to be putting on trial.
“The guy on the right is Medhanie Yehdego Mered,” said the first source, when presented with a photo showing Mered standing in a row of three wedding guests. “Everybody knew he was a smuggler at the wedding and everybody was talking about him.”
A second source also confirmed his identity. “That’s him, the guy eating cake wearing white,” said the second source, referring to a photo showing Mered with his sister. “He is an idiot in real life too. Even at the wedding he was … fighting with someone.”
The revelations raise further concerns about the competence of Italian and British anti-smuggling operations. In June, both countries presented Mered’s alleged arrest as a major victory in the fight to curb people-smuggling in north Africa, which has brought nearly 500,000 people to Italy in the past three years. The NCA hailed its “substantial” role in both tracking Mered down and liaising with the Sudanese authorities to secure his arrest. The FCO also praised its own “crucial” involvement in liaising with Sudan.
But the emergence of the wedding photographs leaves both Britain and Italy with serious questions to answer, said Berhe’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo. “These photos are really important because they prove what we have been trying to say in the last months,” said Calantropo. “They prove that the smuggler is still at large and that he is obviously not my client.”
The FCO admitted that it had not checked whether the man extradited to Italy was the man sought by British police, but said that concerns about the investigative process should be directed to the NCA and the Italian authorities. The NCA said it could not comment on a live case, while Roy Godding, the NCA operative who led the Mered investigation, did not respond to approaches made to him directly. The Italian prosecutors said: “No comment from us.”
The photograph collection is one of several new indications that Italy may be prosecuting the wrong man. According to previously unseen court documents, prosecutors admitted that Nuredin Atta Wehabrebi, an Eritrean smuggler-turned-supergrass assisting in the Mered investigation, did not recognise Berhe. “I have never seen this guy before,” he is quoted as saying by prosecutors.
Separately, a brief Facebook conversation from October 2015 between Berhe and Mered’s wife, Lidia Tesfu, suggests that the pair did not know each other, contradicting prosecution claims that Berhe is an alias for Mered.
After an initial exchange in which the pair tried to establish whether they had met, Berhe told Tesfu he liked her profile picture, and said he was attracted to her. “But I’m a married person,” said Tesfu. “No problem, you can have more than one man,” Berhe replied, before Tesfu laughed away his suggestion, ending their interactions.
Court documents also reveal that the Sudanese justice ministry could have approved Berhe’s extradition by overriding the recommendations of Sudanese investigators. His extradition papers say that the justice minister could deport him “without obligating the minister to take into consideration the recommendations of the detective judge who interrogated the criminal”. However, the document does not explain the content of those recommendations.
These disclosures are the latest in a series of revelations that raise questions about the prosecution’s case. It has already emerged that:
Gory pictures found on Berhe’s phone, which prosecutors claimed were photographs of his dead clients, were in fact downloaded from an Asian website.
Two of Mered’s former passengers did not recognise Berhe, with one refusing to be quoted by name because he believed that Mered was still at large, and feared Mered would target him for speaking out.
One of them, Anbes Yemane, a 23-year-old Eritrean student, said: “I know [Mered] very well, I can recognise him very well. That wasn’t him.”
The prosecution’s case now largely rests on three more wiretapped phone calls between Berhe and smugglers in Libya in May 2016. In the first, Berhe tells a smuggler that some friends want to travel to Libya, according to court documents. In the second, Berhe speaks with a man who seems to be both his friend and a client of the smugglers, and agrees to pass on a message to the friend’s family. In the third, a smuggler tells Berhe that a friend of his has yet to pay his smuggling fees.
Berhe’s lawyer does not dispute that these wiretaps feature his client but argues the calls contain no incriminating evidence. Many innocent Eritreans are regularly in touch with smugglers in Libya, helping to organise transport across the Sahara and the Mediterranean for their friends and family. By some estimates, 6% of the population has fled the Eritrean dictatorship, and in order to secure onward travel to the safety of Europe, thousands of them have had to speak with smugglers.
“My client is not a smuggler at all,” Calantropo said. “He has been contacted by smugglers and he called them back to talk with his friend, who was about to leave from Libya. But this does not make him a smuggler. If an Eritrean wants to leave the country he can’t exactly go to an airport. They are forced to contact a smuggler.’’
Berhe’s family say he has neither been to Libya, where Mered’s business is said to have been based, nor speaks Arabic, a language needed to operate as a smuggler in Libya. They say he left Eritrea in October 2014, one of thousands of Eritreans to flee a government that the UN accused this year of committing crimes against humanity on its population.