Europe

Mistaken identity plea from 'family' of suspected people smuggler

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

A man extradited from Sudan to Italy on suspicion of being at the centre of a major people smuggling operation is a victim of mistaken identity, the BBC's Secunder Kermani has been told.

Seghen Tesfarmariam Berhe - an Eritrean living in the Sudanese capital Khartoum - has spent the past two weeks desperate for news of her younger brother Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe who disappeared on 24 May after being arrested by Sudanese police.

On Wednesday she saw his photo on Facebook - alongside headlines about the arrest and extradition to Italy of a notorious people smuggler called Mered Medhanie - reportedly captured in a joint mission by British, Italian and Sudanese authorities.

"I saw it in Facebook, I was going [so] crazy I cried," she told the BBC.

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 said to be Mered Medhanie who was extradited to Italy

She and other friends and relatives say it is a flagrant case of mistaken identity and an innocent man has been arrested.

"He's not Mered Medhanie, he's my younger brother [and] his name is Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe. We have been living for one year together here in Khartoum."

I ask her if she could be mistaken but she is adamant that is not the case.

"It's definitely my brother, I have been looking for him for two weeks. He is not a human trafficker, he is my brother.

"He doesn't do anything about smuggling. He doesn't know anything about that."

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

Seghen says that after she was told her brother Medhanie had been arrested, she tried to talk to the police in Sudan.

"I called the 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. Then, all of 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."

Mered Medhanie is alleged by Italian authorities to be a smuggling kingpin who trafficked thousands of people from Libya to Italy and northern Europe.

Nicknamed "The General" his operations have been linked to the deaths of hundreds of refugees and migrants who drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But Seghen says that her brother came to Sudan in March 2015 illegally as a refugee after fleeing Eritrea by travelling through Ethiopia. He was hoping to join another sister living in the US and to study and work there.

Officials have said the arrest was made on 24 May in Khartoum but it was only announced on Wednesday when an extradition to Italy was completed.

Seghen does not know what happened in the two weeks that he was held.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The family of Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe insist it is him - not Mered Medhanie - who has been extradited to Italy

"I am worried," she said. "I have been worried if they interrogate him or hit him or abuse him mentally."

Her voice chokes with tears as she talks about seeing the images of him being led off the plane in handcuffs.

"His photo… he looks awful. I feel sad to see him like that."

Italian authorities have said they still believe they have the right man. The British National Crime Agency has said it is too early to speculate on the claims that the wrong man has been arrested.

But a growing number of people have been saying that's exactly what happened.

'Just a refugee'

The first to do so was Meron Estefanos - an Eritrean human rights activist and radio host based in Sweden. She has interviewed the real Mered Medhanie a number of times.

"I've received over 400 Facebook messages from people that know the person that's arrested, everyone is saying this is my friend, my childhood friend, he's just a refugee," she said.

She also said she had spoken to refugees who had met the real Mered Medhanie. All said the man arrested did not resemble him.

Seghen, for her part, is angry with the police.

"They should be investigating before they arrest him. The photos are different too," she says.

"The Sudanese police didn't inform me. They should be asking him if he has anybody to contact in Khartoum.

"[But] They didn't question him. If they questioned him he would've said my sister is here, my relatives and friends are here. We would've known where he was for two weeks.

"They wouldn't have taken him without knowing if he is innocent."

She appealed to British police to investigate whether the wrong man had been extradited.

"He is not a human trafficker, he is an innocent refugee," she insisted.

Another sister living in Norway, Hiwet Tesfarmariam Berhe Kidane, said she was hoping to be able to visit the man she believes is her brother.

"I am looking for the exact place he's being held so I can stand by his side. I want to go to my brother, to Italy," she said.