As It Happens

Still no freedom for Eritrean man falsely identified as human-trafficking kingpin

Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe thought he was going to walk out of Italian prison a free man on Friday after a judge ruled he was the victim of mistaken identify. Instead he went to a detention centre.

Man who spent 3 years behind bars in case of mistaken identity moved to migrant detention centre

A man identified by Italian authorities as people-smuggling kingpin Medhanie Yehdego Mered is really an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, a judge has ruled. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)
Listen6:02

Read Story Transcript

Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe thought he was going to walk out of Italian prison a free man on Friday after a judge ruled he was the victim of mistaken identity. 

The Eritrean man had spent the last three years behind bars trying to prove that he's an impoverished milk farmer-turned refugee — not the notorious human-trafficking kingpin Italian authorities claimed he was. 

But after a court ruling last week finally confirmed Berhe's identity, authorities moved him to a migrant detention centre in Sicily. It's not clear how long he will be detained. 

"Justice was denied again," Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist and refugee advocate, told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"It's not really freedom for him because he's moved from one prison to another prison."

Arrested in Sudan 

Berhe maintains he was a refugee when he was arrested in a coffee shop in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in 2016 and extradited to Italy to face trial for human trafficking.

His arrest marked the culmination of a joint investigation by British and Italian authorities, launched after 368 migrants died in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. 

Authorities identified him as Medhanie Yehdego Mered — a notorious Eritrean smuggler who goes by the nickname "The General." Law enforcement officials called him "the Al Capone of the desert."

Hiwet Tesfamariam, Behre's sister, reacts after hearing his verdict on Friday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

But Berhe insisted that before arriving in Sudan, he had been in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and that Sudanese officials had beaten him and stolen his identification.

According to his family back home, he was a carpenter who worked part-time milking cows on a farm. 

Prosecutors, however, remained steadfast in their insistence that they got the right man, and sought a 14-year sentence. 

Mounting evidence 

But the trial started to fall apart when some of Mered's alleged victims testified that they did not recognize the arrested man. Relatives of both the farmer and the alleged smuggling mastermind agreed it was a case of mistaken identity.

What's more, a voice expert confirmed that it was not Behre's voice on wiretapped phonecalls of Mered obtained by Italian police. 

Michele Calantropo, Behre's lawyer, says his client has the right to appeal his conviction for aiding illegal immigration. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Estefanos, meanwhile, worked diligently to report on what she saw as an "abuse of power" by the Italian prosecutors. 

She produced a documentary for the Swedish broadcaster SVT, in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper, in which she interviewed dozens of Ugandan and Eritrean citizens who said Mered was living it up in the Ugandan capital of Kampala while Berhe wasted away behind bars.

"We proved to the world and did a film about it  — and still nothing happened," she said. "There is so many abuse of power and so many injustices happening over and over again."

Convicted on a lesser charge 

On Friday, Judge Alfredo Montalto ruled that Behre was the victim of mistaken identity.

But the court also convicted him of a lesser charge — aiding illegal immigration — for helping two cousins reach Italy, based on investigations conducted after Behre was extradited to Italy, Calantropo said.

"The court recognized that it was a person involved in aiding illegal immigration," Palermo Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. "Thus [he was] not a poor carpenter unjustly persecuted."

Behre was moved from an Italian prison cell to an Italian migrant detention centre. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Behre was handed a five-year prison term, but because he had already served three years behind bars, the court said he could go free.

"He cried like a child when he was told that the judges had recognized it was mistaken identity and ordered his immediate release," Calantropo had said earlier outside the courtroom.

But rather than releasing him, police took Berhe to a facility in the centre of Sicily where migrants are placed ahead of their eventual expulsion.

"Of course, he's depressed," Estefanos said. "He was looking forward to spend some time on Friday night with his sister, with all of us. That's what we were waiting for."

What's next?

Berhe's fate now hangs in limbo once again. 

Calantropo says his client has a right under Italian law to appeal his conviction, and that it would illegal for Italy to expel him at this point in time.

Lorenzo Tondo, a Guardian journalist who has been covering the case, told As It Happens that Berhe will likely be kept in the detention camp for several weeks before being released and asked to leave the country. 

Calantropo said Friday he's applied for asylum for her client. 

Meanwhile, the real Mered is still out there somewhere. 

"He was able to live freely and he was traveling all over places in Africa in Dubai, many countries," Estefanos said. "So we'll see what happens to him."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Meron Estefanos produced by Jeanne Armstrong.