After a three-year 'nightmare', Berhe is free
Palermo (Italy) (AFP) - An Italian court ruled Friday that an Eritrean accused of being a human trafficking kingpin known as "the General" was telling the truth when he claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.
Carpenter Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe was arrested in Sudan in 2016 on suspicion of being at the heart of one of the world's largest migrant trafficking networks, but after a 21-month trial the court ruled that police had the wrong man.
Behre was accused of being Medhanie Yehdego Mered, known as "the General", and was extradited to Italy.
But the Palermo court accepted his 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 a 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.
"I believe they have found a solution," his lawyer, Michele Calantropo, told reporters,adding that the recognition of mistaken identity had dealt a "big blow" to the defence.
Calantropo said he had applied for asylum on behalf of Behre as they feared he could be deported upon release.
Behre had been accused of running a vast trafficking network, with branches in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Europe.
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.
Despite differences in appearance between the two men, and DNA evidence supporting Berhe's case, Italian prosecutors stuck to their guns throughout and had 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.
- 'Made a mistake' -
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 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. Berhe's family recognised him instantly.
According to American, Italian and Swedish investigative journalists, 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: tests on Behre's mother showed the defendant was her son.
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 AFP on Thursday head of 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," he said.
Medhanie was the name flagged by Britain's National Crime Agency in 2016 when it heard someone going by that name calling the tapped phone of a suspected smuggler in Libya.
The man who made the calls was tracked down and arrested in Khartoum.
But while prosecutors said the calls were made to organise migrant trips, Calantropo said his client was just looking out for loved ones heading to Europe.