An Eritrean man accused by British authorities of being one of the world’s “most wanted people smugglers” may actually be a victim of mistaken identity, Italian prosecutors have admitted.
In an embarrassing blow to a high-profile investigation led by Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and GCHQ, it appears the real Medhanie Yehdego Mered remains at large and an innocent man was seized in June and extradited to Italy in his place.
When doubts about the identity of the man in custody were raised in June, the NCA said it stood by its intelligence.
However, papers lodged yesterday by prosecutors in Rome who have broken ranks with their Sicilian colleagues concede they may have the wrong man, according to the Times.
In a 23-page document submitted to court officials, Rome prosecutors wrote: “This prosecution office have good grounds to state that the real physical aspect of Medhanie Yehdego Mered is the one shown in the attached photo,” referring to a picture of a man who differs substantially in appearance to the man in custody in Sicily.
The Rome prosecutors then cited testimony by a prosecution witness, an alleged former customer of Mered, who said the man in the photo was the real smuggler, rather than the man on trial in Sicily.
The court papers show the NCA’s representative in north Africa, Roy Godding, played an important role in the extradition, with the agency claiming on its website that it had tracked Mered to an address in Khartoum.
The suspect claims he is actually Medhanie Tasfamariam Behre, an Eritrean refugee who had fled to Sudan.
The real Medhanie, who is also known as ‘The General,’ has been labeled a criminal “mastermind.” His capture in June was hailed as a rare victory against people smuggling.
Investigators say Medhanie was responsible for sending thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea and for the deaths of 359 migrants who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian coast in 2013.
The Rome prosecutor’s findings were presented to the Palermo court by the defendant’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo, to back his contention that Italian and British authorities had made a mistake.
Palermo prosecutors opposed the request to incorporate the Rome report into the evidence, and the judge will rule on its admissibility on January 10.
The news will cause significant embarrassment for Britain’s NCA, GCHQ and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, all of which played a part in the alleged smuggler’s arrest.