Italy frees Eritrean refugee mistaken for human trafficker

An Italian court on Friday ruled that an Eritrean refugee arrested in Sudan three years ago was not a human trafficking kingpin.

A joint British-Italian operation targeting a human trafficking boss known as "the General" resulted in the arrest of Eritrean carpenter Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in what the Italian court described as a case of mistaken identity.

"He cried like a child when he was told that the judges had recognized it was mistaken identity and ordered his immediate release," said Berhe's lawyer Michele Calantropo.

Since his 2016 arrest, Behre has repeatedly denied he is Medhanie Yehdego Mered, who is wanted for running a trafficking network that spans from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Europe. He was extradited to Italy that year to stand trial.

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Mistaken identity

Bloods tests from Behre's mother and Mered's three-year-old child who resides in Sweden proved that the man arrested in 2016 was not "the General."

However, the court did hand Behre a five-year prison sentence and €100,000 ($113,000) fine for assisting in illegal migration. He was released on time served. But his lawyer said he would nonetheless appeal the conviction.

"The court has accepted our position," said Calantropo. "He is not 'the General.'"

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Crackdown on trafficking

More than a million refugees and economic migrants entered the EU in 2015. Since then, EU member states, such as Italy, have tried to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean for European shores.

Some attempts have been made to quash what EU authorities have dubbed as human trafficking networks from North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. The joint British-Italian operation targeting Mered was part of those efforts.

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ls/msh (AFP, Reuters)