Europe migrant crisis: Doubt cast on identity of 'smuggler' extradited to Italy

Left: An image of the man believed to be Mered Medhanie previously released by the UK National Crime Agency; Right: the man extradited to Italy Image copyright NCA/Polizia di Stato
Image caption Left: An image of the man believed to be Mered Medhanie previously released by the UK National Crime Agency; Right: the man extradited to Italy

Italian prosecutors are investigating whether the wrong man was extradited to Italy this week in a high-profile operation against people-smuggling.

A man thought to be suspected Eritrean people smuggler Mered Medhanie, 35, was seized in Sudan last month.

Two women said to be sisters of another Eritrean man, Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe, 27, say he was arrested instead.

One of them told the BBC of her shock at suddenly seeing photos of her missing brother in custody in Italy.

Italy announced the extradition on Wednesday, releasing video of a man in handcuffs being escorted off a plane.

The country is currently at the forefront of the battle to stop smugglers sending tens of thousands of undocumented migrants on perilous journeys by boat to Europe.

Who was meant to be extradited?

Investigators say Mered Medhanie, dubbed The General, is responsible for the death of 359 migrants in October 2013.

They drowned when their boat sank off the Italian coast in October 2013.

He is alleged to have led a multi-billion dollar empire which specialised in smuggling migrants from Africa to Europe.

Mered Medhanie allegedly charged migrants up to €5,000 (£3,900; $5,680) for the trip.

What do the authorities say?

The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) said the man extradited had been arrested by Sudanese police with the help of the British and Italian authorities.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A police photo showed the suspect arriving on Italian soil

But after doubts were raised in the media about the suspect's identity, Italian prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi announced that "checks" were being carried out.

"The identification of the suspect, his arrest, his handing over and his extradition to Italy were communicated to us in an official manner by the NCA and the Sudanese authorities through Interpol," the Palermo prosecutor told Italy's Ansa news agency.

The NCA said it was "too soon to speculate" about the identity claims but stressed it was "confident in its intelligence-gathering process".

Who is Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe?

Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe is said to be an Eritrean asylum seeker who arrived in Sudan last year.

Image caption Images of Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe given to the BBC resembled the man in custody

People said to be his siblings or friends have identified him as the man brought to Italy this week.

A woman who identifies herself as an older sister, Seghen Tesfarmariam Berhe, told the BBC's Newsnight programme from Khartoum that she had been living with her brother in the Sudanese capital for a year before he vanished two weeks ago.

Her brother, she said, had come illegally to Sudan in March 2015 as a refugee after fleeing Eritrea via Ethiopia.

He had been hoping, she said, to join another sister living in the US and to study and work there.

A woman living in Norway who identified herself as another sister told Newsnight her brother was "completely innocent".

Hiwet Tesfarmariam Berhe Kidane said she had last spoken to him about three weeks ago and had first learned of his arrest when she saw pictures of him on television and social media.

"I was going crazy": Seghen Tesfarmariam Berhe, said to be sister of Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe, speaking to BBC from Khartoum, Sudan

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Media captionSeghen Tesfarmariam Berhe: "I want to say to the police...that they arrested the wrong person"

"He's not Mered Medhanie. He's my younger brother. His name is Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe. We have been living here for one year together in Khartoum.

"He is not a human trafficker. He is my brother.

"I called the [Sudanese] police but they said there is no person with that name. I have been searching for him for two weeks. They told me there is nobody with that name in prison. All of a sudden I see him in Italy.

"I have been worried sick. I have been crying the whole two weeks. I did not know if he was alive or dead. His photo… he looks awful. I feel sad to see him like that."

'Plea from detainee's family'

Could this really be a mix-up?

Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who interviewed the real Mered Medhanie in a phone call last year, says that refugees who have met the smuggler in the flesh are certain the images from Italy do not show the same man.

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Media captionJournalist Meron Estefanos says she is certain authorities have the wrong man

"I believe they have the wrong person. This is a refugee who happened to be in [the Sudanese capital] Khartoum at the wrong place at the wrong time."

She added that rumours were going around Khartoum that the real Mered Medhanie had been arrested in Sudan but had managed to bribe himself out of jail.

Some of the confusion may have arisen from the fact that the two men share a name, Medhanie.