I am not migrant smuggling kingpin, says Eritrean extradited to Italy
The Eritrean man extradited to Italy as an alleged kingpin of a migrant smuggling ring has told authorities his arrest in Sudan was a case of mistaken identity and denied that calls from his phone to Libya were related to trafficking, his lawyer said.
"It is clear for him he is not the man who is smuggling or trafficking humans," Michele Calantropo said outside the Rome prison where the suspect was questioned by prosecutors from Sicily, leading Italy's anti-smuggling investigations in the presence of a judge.
Prosecutors identified the suspect as Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged mastermind of a migrant smuggling ring that has brought thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Italy via lawless Libya.
Within hours of the announcement Eritrean communities in Europe starting buzzing with reports that the man escorted off the plane was not Mered, but an Eritrean refugee with the same first name who had been living in Sudan.
Italy's interior minister Angelino Alfano declined to comment on the case, telling reporters competent authorities were working on it.
The ANSA news agency, reporting from Palermo, said the suspect admitted to some intercepted calls that investigators believe prove his role in the smuggling ring. ANSA also said the smuggler Mered is known to have used aliases.
Mr Calantropo said the two or three phone calls in question were to a Libyan number, but that his client said they were to a cousin and had nothing to do with trafficking. The calls were traced during the investigation and were part of the documents that formed the basis of the arrest warrant.
"He confirmed the calls from 2016. He had phone calls with a Libyan cell phone because there was a cousin in Libya. He did not admit to any contact with smugglers," Mr Calantropo said.
The man in custody has been identified by many in the Eritrean community, including his sister, a close friend of the family and a Swedish-based Eritrean broadcaster who fielded calls after the arrest, as Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. Medhane and Medhanie are transliterations of the same name.
Meron Estefanos, a broadcaster, has interviewed Mered, the smuggling suspect, in the past, albeit by telephone, and said she quickly realised it was two different people.
She said Mered told her he was responsible for smuggling 13,000 people over a two-year period and that he did not supply migrants with life jackets because such a large-scale purchase would draw suspicion.
Mr Calantropo said that British authorities and the Sudanese police who arrested the suspect two weeks ago maintained they had the right man and that Italian authorities were taking steps to verify his identity. He said he is requesting documents from relatives in Norway and Sudan.
He said no requests for DNA samples or fingerprint verifications have been made.
The lawyer made a request to release his client from jail, arguing that he is not a danger. He expects a ruling next week.
A request for an indictment has already been made, and Mr Calantropo said he expects the case to proceed to a preliminary hearing.
He added his client says he does not speak Arabic, as Mered is known to do, and has never been to Libya. Mered is 35, while Berhe is 30, according to documents.