British and Italian authorities are reportedly investigating whether the wrong man has been arrested in a people-smuggling case, just a few hours after the arrest Wednesday.
Investigators announced Wednesday that the alleged kingpin of a huge crime network that is believed to be smuggling refugees from Africa to Europe was extradited from Sudan. Medhanie Yehdego Mered was flown to Italy Tuesday.
But three friends of the detainee told the Guardian that the investigators had arrested the wrong man and that it was a case of mistaken identity.
They claim that the man in custody is actually 24-year-old Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane, a refugee who simply shared the same first name as the suspect. The friends said that Kidane had never been to Libya, the alleged centre of the smuggling operations.
“It’s the wrong guy,” Kidane’s cousin Fshaye Tasfai, who grew up with him in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, reportedly said. “It’s incredible – he’s not a human trafficker. He’s from my family. He lived in my father’s house. He left Eritrea in 2014, and then went to Khartoum about a year ago. He lived with my brothers and sisters in Khartoum. He didn’t have a job so we use to send him money.”
One of Kidane’s flatmates in Khartoum told the Guardian: “He’s innocent.”
Sweden-based Eritrean broadcaster Meron Estefaros who had interviewed the actual suspect Mered by telephone earlier reportedly said, “I have almost 400 people writing to me saying: I know this guy, he grew up with me. This is the wrong person.”
Estefaros said that Mered had admitted to smuggling close to 13,000 people. He didn’t have any practical role in the transportation of the refugees but acted more as a middleman in the operation.
“I have never seen any [Eritrean smuggler] become as big as him so quickly,” Estefaros added.
A spokesman for the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) told the Guardian, “This is a complex multi-partner operation and it is too soon to speculate about these claims. The NCA is confident in its intelligence-gathering process.”
The NCA said it believes that Mered had arranged the transit of a boat that sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 in which 359 refugees died.