Sudan secret police testify in Italy trafficker trial

Tullio Filippone
The man believed to be Eritrean Medhanie Yehdego Mered, on trial as the alleged head of one of the largest migrant trafficking networks, says his case is one of mistaken identity and he is really a carpenter called Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre (AFP Photo/Andreas SOLARO)

Palermo (Italy) (AFP) - Members of Sudan's secret service described the capture Wednesday of an alleged people trafficking kingpin, who insists he is a victim of mistaken identity.

Eritrean national Medhanie Yehdego Mered is accused of being "the General" of one of the largest migrant trafficking networks, with branches in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Europe.

But the man on trial in Sicily, arrested in Sudan in 2016 and extradited to Italy, insists he is carpenter Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.

Italy, Sudan and Britain at the time hailed his capture as the stellar result of a joint operation which had dealt a significant blow to the people smuggling business.

Berhe -- or Mered -- told Wednesday's hearing in Palermo he was beaten during his arrest and interrogation by policemen who took away his identity papers and threw him in jail, where "an official asked me for money in exchange for my release".

Mohamed Elnour Abdelrahman, one of the arresting officers and who says he worked for Sudan's feared secret service, denies using violence, as does Mir Ibrahim Abdelsadig, who interrogated the suspect.

They insisted they were following orders from the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA).

- Tracked to Khartoum -

"I received a photograph and phone number (from the NCA) which we tracked to a Khartoum neighbourhood," Adbelraham said.

"We showed him the photo and he said it was him, but he said his name was Mered Tasmafarian Behre, and not Medhanie Yehdego Mered."

Abdelsadig told the court that he had not informed his superiors that the man they had in the cells went by a different name.

"When he said he was called Mered Tasfamarian Behre I didn't tell my superiors when I passed on his file, because the name he gave was not very different from the one we had been given," he said.

Abdelsadig admitted that he had not asked him whether he wanted a lawyer present during the interrogation.

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 Lampedusa island in 2013, killing at least 360 people in one of the worst such disasters in the Mediterranean.

The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo, said his client had ended up a suspect because he had had contact with a people trafficker.

"During the interrogation he said he knew a trafficker who had helped three friends emigrate to Europe, and who had promised to do the same for him in exchange for 1,800 dollars," he said.

Calantropo said the only thing his client shares with "the General" is his first name: Medhanie.

This was the name flagged by Britain's NCA in 2016 when it heard someone going by that name calling the tapped phone of a suspected smuggler in Libya.