Sudan has extradited the alleged people-smuggling kingpin, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, to Italy, prosecutors said. He is expected to appear in court on Wednesday.
The 35-year-old Eritrean is believed to be the head of a crime network that is responsible for bringing thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa to Europe. He was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, on May 24 and flown to Italy on Tuesday.
The court led by prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi reportedly said, “Mered is accused of being the advocate and boss of one of the most important criminal groups operating in central Africa and Libya that smuggles people first across the Sahara desert and then the Mediterranean Sea.”
Prosecutors allege that Mered was working with an Ethiopian accomplice, Ghermay Ermias, who is still at large. The two of them are accused of earning huge sums of money by bringing refugees and migrants from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats that are often not equipped for sea travel, reports said.
Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferraro told Reuters that their crime operation was “much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined” and estimated that the duo made between $800,000 and $1 million before costs, for each boat trip carrying close to 600 people.
The U.K.’s National Crime Agency helped the Italian investigators in tracking Mered to Sudan. The NCA reportedly believes that Mered had arranged the transit of a boat that sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. At least 359 refugees and migrants who were traveling from Libya lost their lives when the boat capsized.
The NCA added that Mered, known as "The General," had styled himself after the late Col. Moammar Gadhafi. The investigation is being led by a team of investigators based out of the Sicilian city of Palermo.
Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper said that in the telephone intercepts acquired by the Italian investigators, Mered is heard estimating that he had smuggled almost 7,000 or 8,000 people.
“Medhanie is a prolific people-smuggler and has absolute disregard for human life," Tom Dowdall, deputy director of the NCA, reportedly said. "Although he was operating thousands of miles away, his criminal activity was impacting the U.K. Medhanie no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice but we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan.”
In 2014, roughly 170,000 refugees and migrants reached Italy by sea and in 2015, it was 123,800. This year the number so far is just over 40,000. Since the beginning of 2014, it is estimated that more than 800 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea. Doctors Without Borders says that at least 900 people died last week alone.