One of the world’s most wanted people smugglers, who Italian prosecutors claim to have in jail in Sicily, is living freely in Uganda and spending his substantial earnings in nightclubs, according to multiple witnesses.
According to the Guardian news website, prosecutors in Palermo announced the capture of the Eritrean smuggler, Medhanie Yehdego Mered in Sudan in June 2016, describing it as “the arrest of the year”.
The suspect was accordingly extradited to Italy with the help of the British Foreign Office and the UK’s National Crime Agency, which had participated in the operation.
However according to documentary by the Swedish public broadcaster SVT in collaboration with Guardian reporters, the 35-year-old Eritrean known as “the General” has never been arrested by European police forces.
“Instead, a 29-year-old refugee, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, was extradited to Italy, where he remains in prison charged with human trafficking offences. SVT is also in possession of a file revealing how a European police authority is aware that the real smuggler is still at large but cannot convince Italian prosecutors to issue a new arrest warrant,” the Guardian article states.
According to the Guardian, SVT reporter Ali Fegan and the Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos travelled to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in March and collected dozens of testimonies from Ugandan and Eritrean citizens who claim to have seen and met Mered.
“We had mapped out all the places, bars and hotels where he had been seen in Kampala before we went there,” said Fegan. “The nature of this mission was very risky and the General obviously does not want his whereabouts to be revealed. So we decided to use a hidden camera and we succeeded in documenting a lot of testimonies of people who say he lives there.”
The investigation into Mered’s people-smuggling ring began after a shipwreck on 3 October 2013 in which 368 migrants died off the island of Lampedusa. Italian prosecutors in Palermo led the hunt.
After two years, during which they intercepted more than 20,000 phone calls, in June 2016 the prosecutors in Palermo announced the capture of Mered. The NCA described the detained man as “one of the world’s most wanted people smugglers”.
Since news of the arrest first broke there have been serious doubts over the man’s identity. Dozens of Mered’s victims claim the wrong man is on trial and, according to the family of the extradited suspect, the man being held in Sicily is an Eritrean refugee who made his living milking cows.
The Guardian spoke to at least 10 people, including employees of an NGO run by Eritreans in Kampala, who said they had made private inquiries and were confident Mered was in the capital.
One witness said Mered had made an impromptu appearance at the Hotel Diplomate in Muyenga, an upscale Kampala suburb. While there, the witness added, Mered had tried to chat up two Eritrean women. He reportedly told the women that his wife ‘‘wasn’t minding him getting other girls’.”