The Asmara Corner Café sits on a dusty main road in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. With its weathered red façade and bright interior, the coffeehouse is a popular hangout for refugees from neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea. On May 24 last year, a young Eritrean man with a mop of curly, untamed hair was sitting in the Asmara when Sudanese police and intelligence forces suddenly stormed into the café and arrested him.
Working together to track his cell phone, authorities in England and Italy had identified the man as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, believed to be one of the most powerful and ruthless human smugglers operating in the Mediterranean. The leader of a massive criminal syndicate, Mered routinely smuggled asylum seekers from Africa into countries throughout Europe. For every boat he sent out loaded with migrants, Mered's network took in an estimated $1 million. It has reportedly raked in more than $1 billion from its criminal activities.
Sudanese police thought they'd arrested one of the most notorious human smugglers in the Mediterranean.
The massive operation may have led to the arrest of the wrong man: a young Eritrean refugee with a similar name.
The case exposed Europe's strategy of partnering with repressive governments in an attempt to end mass migration.
Authorities in Europe had been tracking Mered since October 2013, when a smuggling boat belonging to one of his associates broke down near the Italian island of Lampedusa. A fire, believed to have been set as a rescue signal, quickly raged out of control. Overloaded with desperate people, the wooden boat was soon engulfed in flames and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, killing at least 360 migrants. International outrage over the tragedy was swift, and Mered became a prime target in the investigation that followed.
On phone intercepts that authorities used to track Mered, he was heard laughing about the fatal overloading of migrant ships. He boasted about underfeeding the migrants staying in his warehouses, and brushed off the idea of providing them with life jackets. Over the past six years, some two million people, mostly from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in overpacked, often unseaworthy boats, struggling to escape war, brutal repression, and economic hardship. More than 16,000 have died along the way, putting political pressure on European governments to stem the unprecedented influx of migrants. Combating illegal migration has become a central focus of police and prosecutors across Europe, who have been ordered to crack down on the smugglers who ferry refugees seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So far, authorities have taken down some low-level operatives in the smuggling syndicates in Europe, but top bosses like Mered have eluded their grasp.
Operating from his base in Libya — a failed state with no extradition treaties with European nations — Mered seemed untouchable. Nicknamed “the General,” after former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he was rumored to enjoy riding around the streets of Tripoli in a tank. The reach of his smuggling operation reportedly extends far beyond Europe, into Canada and the United States. According to documents compiled by prosecutors in Italy, Mered was an “untiring organizer of boats from the Libyan coast.” He “worked frenetically in Tripoli” to round up refugees from all across Africa and “organize their departure for Italy.”
Investigators in Italy, supported by authorities in England and Sweden, began to collect detailed information about Mered's personal life and criminal activities, listening in on his phone calls and building up a trove of evidence they could use against him in the event of his capture. Hunted by the police and wary of jealous rivals, Mered grew paranoid: He spoke of needing to go into hiding, and talked about transferring his wealth to bank accounts in the United States. Once he could secure his money, he said on the phone intercepts, he wanted to move to Sweden, where his wife and son lived.
Then, in the summer of 2015, Mered suddenly dropped off the radar. The phones that investigators were listening to went silent, and his Facebook profile became inactive. No concrete information surfaced about his whereabouts until November 2015, when Swedish prosecutors received information that Mered was now in Sudan. The Swedes passed what they believed was Mered's new cell phone number to a unit of prosecutors in Italy, who had been tasked with targeting the smuggling trade. A few months later, the National Crime Agency in London — known as Britain's FBI — said they had intelligence confirming that Mered was in Khartoum, and that the Sudanese were willing to collaborate in his arrest.
The big break came last year, on May 23, when the Italians intercepted three calls on the cell phone number provided by the Swedes. According to a summary of the calls compiled by prosecutors and obtained by the New Republic, Mered could be heard talking about his smuggling operations and arranging payment for people in Libya who were waiting to be transported to Europe. The prosecution's forensics expert later found text messages on the phone that discussed preparations for Mediterranean trips, along with internet searches for weather conditions in the area, and for terms like “Sahara” and “Libya.”
“I will leave to Libya soon,” the man on the phone texted, according to transcripts later compiled by prosecutors. “I lost the year 2015; I did nothing. But 2016 will be different.” The following day, with the support of British authorities, Sudanese police tracked the user of the cell phone to the coffeehouse in Khartoum and swooped in to make the arrest.
Two weeks later, on June 7, Italian prosecutors took possession of the suspect and flew him to Rome, where news photographers captured his first steps on Italian soil. The images show a slender man with disheveled hair being led down the airplane stairs in handcuffs by two stone-faced Italian police officers. Mered, authorities triumphantly proclaimed, was the first smuggling kingpin to be arrested and brought to Europe to stand trial for his crimes. “He no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice,” declared one British official. “But we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan.”
- The biggest arrest to date in Europe's crackdown on illegal migration was botched from the very start.
But the success of the operation was soon cast into doubt. It now appears that the biggest arrest to date in Europe's crackdown on illegal migration — the centerpiece of government efforts to treat the massive influx of migrants as a criminal matter, rather than a humanitarian crisis — was botched from the very start. The reason was simple: The police had arrested the wrong man.
In 2014, a year after the Lampedusa tragedy turned Mered into one of Europe's most wanted smugglers, a 27-year-old Eritrean named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe snuck across the southern border of Eritrea into Ethiopia. Berhe was part of an exodus from Eritrea, a brutal dictatorship that engages in torture and forcibly conscripts young men like Berhe into the military. Up to 5,000 people flee Eritrea every month, typically via Sudan and then Libya, making the country one of the largest sources of asylum seekers flooding into Europe.
Berhe grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. After he finished high school in 2010, he took an apprenticeship with a carpenter and then worked briefly as a dairyman's assistant, delivering milk and keeping track of accounts. But his primary worry was dodging conscription. “The government was picking up the people who were not serving at the time,” recalls his sister, Seghen Tesfamariam Berhe. “So he had to run away.”
After a few months in Ethiopia, Berhe made his way to Sudan. His plan was to find a smuggler who could get him into Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Italy. In 2015, Seghen joined her brother in Sudan, but she did not want him to go to Europe. The trip was too dangerous; she was afraid he would drown at sea or be kidnapped by ISIS, which was gaining a foothold in Libya. The group had recently released one of its sleek propaganda videos showing the decapitation of dozens of Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians on a beach. “When I came from Asmara, I stopped him from going to Libya,” Seghen says. “I begged him, please don't go.”
Berhe initially gave in. But he soon grew despondent. As a Christian and a foreigner in an Islamic country, he was often harassed by the police. “He wasn't doing anything,” his sister recalls. “He just was sitting at home. In the evening he would go out and watch football and come back home. He couldn't accept the life in Sudan.” After living for more than a year on money sent by friends and family, Berhe was determined to get out.
- “When I saw his picture, I was shocked. My brother is not a human trafficker.”
Then last year, on May 24, he suddenly disappeared. His friends told Seghen that they had seen him being arrested at the Asmara Corner Café. But no one knew what happened to him after that.
“I searched everywhere in Khartoum,” Seghen says. “I told the police that my brother was missing and that he was arrested. They told me that they don't know anybody with that name. For two weeks, I didn't know if he was alive or dead.”
Then, on June 9, Seghen was stunned to see a photo of her brother on the BBC News. He was on the tarmac in Rome, being led off an airplane in handcuffs. In dozens of news stories and television reports, Berhe was identified as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, the notorious smuggler.
“When I saw his picture, I was shocked,” Seghen says. “My brother is not a human trafficker.”
Berhe's friends rallied to correct what was clearly a case of mistaken identity. Meron Estefanos, a well-known Eritrean broadcaster based in Sweden, began speaking to the media. “I have almost 400 people writing to me saying: 'I know this guy, he grew up with me,'” she told The Guardian. “This is the wrong person.” The newspaper also interviewed Eritreans in Europe who knew Berhe from back home. “They've definitely got the wrong guy,” said one man. “He's not a human trafficker — he's just a simple refugee.”
Both Berhe and Mered are from Eritrea. Both are slender, and they share the same first name. But the similarities end there. Berhe is six years younger than Mered. He looks nothing like the man in a Facebook photo that prosecutors identified as the smuggler. Even more striking is the testimony of Mered himself, who appears to be still at large. According to a private Facebook log obtained by Berhe's attorney, Mered referred to Berhe's arrest in an online chat. “They made a mistake with his name,” Mered says in Tigrinya, one of the main languages spoken in Eritrea. “Everyone knows he's not a smuggler. I hope he will be released, because he hasn't done anything.”
But despite the clear-cut evidence that they made a mistake, Italian and British authorities continue to insist that they have the right man. “This is a complex multipartner operation,” said a spokesperson for the National Crime Agency. “The NCA is confident in its intelligence-gathering process.” Berhe — still identified by Italian prosecutors as Mered — is currently on trial in a courtroom in Palermo, Sicily. He stands accused of international human smuggling and running a transnational criminal organization. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison.
Berhe's arrest — and the refusal of authorities to admit that they got the wrong man — underscores the fundamental problem with Europe's crackdown on undocumented migration. Immigration is being treated as a crime to be prevented, rather than a humanitarian crisis to be resolved. But the emphasis on law enforcement only serves to deepen the inequities and repression that are spurring millions to flee their homelands and seek asylum in Europe. Instead of providing a safe haven to people fleeing brutal dictatorships, European governments have partnered with some of those very same dictatorships — exacerbating the root causes of the mass migration from Africa to Europe and forcing desperate people into the hands of smugglers
In 2015, the EU Commission for International Cooperation and Development awarded $270 million in aid to nine African nations, including the brutal regime in Eritrea. Bolstering the Eritrean economy was intended to slow the outflow of asylum seekers. Instead, human rights advocates say, the money effectively rewards Eritrea's military dictatorship for its abuses — virtually guaranteeing that more refugees will be driven to flee the country. “Many young Eritreans are fleeing the government's policy of indefinite and abusive military service,” says Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Unless there are human rights reforms, they will continue to flee — irrespective of what development aid is provided to the government.”
Last April, a month before Berhe was arrested in Sudan, the European Commission announced it was providing $107 million to the Sudanese government to help stem the flow of illegal migration. Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, currently stands accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide and crimes against humanity. In May, Der Spiegel reported that the EU planned to help Sudanese border police build two detention centers for migrants attempting to flee Sudan. And in August, Italian and Sudanese police signed an agreement to collaborate more closely in the crackdown on smuggling, paving the way for Italy to repatriate tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers to Sudan.
In effect, Italy is attempting to wall off the Mediterranean, stopping as many refugees as possible from getting out of Africa and the Middle East, and shipping back the few who do make it. The rest of the European Union is following suit. The EU recently secured the right to return an unlimited number of refugeesto Afghanistan, and it is pursuing similar “repatriation agreements” with countries across Africa and South Asia. What's more, at least seven European countrieshave begun building or have completed border walls and fences to close down migration routes.
“Europe can, at the moment, say nothing to Mr. Trump about the wall with Mexico,” says Michele Calantropo, a Sicilian attorney representing Berhe in court. “Europe did the same thing.”
The EU's emphasis on securing borders has not only failed to slow the outflow of people from Africa, it has put refugees at even greater risk. Migration “has become much more dangerous,” says Linn Biörklund, a humanitarian adviser with Doctors Without Borders. “People need to travel on much harder routes. So the ones who actually need protection and safety the most are the ones who get stuck and die along the way.”
In addition, treating migration as a crime has effectively enabled European governments to shift attention away from their own responsibility for the crisis. “No one is looking at EU policies, which are restricting the ability of people to apply for asylum, or to have safe passage,” says Reece Jones, an expert on border security and the author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. “Instead they put all of the blame on smugglers.”
The political pressure on police and prosecutors to stop migrants from reaching Europe has trapped Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in a kind of legal limbo. Because the authorities are not willing to admit they made a mistake — a confession that would call into question both their competency and their strategy — Berhe remains in prison while his trial proceeds. “If his name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe or Medhanie Yehdego Mered, it doesn't change anything,” insists Calogero Ferrara, one of the Italian prosecutors. “What's important is to link the person with the crime, not the name.”
The Italians are confident that they can prove that the man they have in custody is the smuggler they were listening to on the wiretaps in 2014. “He says he is not Mered,” says Maurizio Scalia, another prosecutor working on the case. “We say he is Mered.” As evidence, prosecutors point to their forensic analysis of the cell phone Berhe was carrying at the time of his arrest. Three numbers saved on the phone were also intercepted during the wiretapping of Mered's communications in 2014. There were also photos on Berhe's phone that show him shopping for a blazer and sitting at a table with a Nikon camera — images the prosecution hails as evidence of the riches he enjoyed as a smuggler.
It is unclear why Swedish authorities believe that the phone number they gave to the Italians belonged to Mered; the Swedish Prosecution Authority declined to comment on the case. But the translation provided by Italian prosecutors of Berhe's phone intercepts and chats appear to be taken out of context, and are at times wildly inaccurate. The New Republic conducted its own translation of the phone records and found the official Italian version so riddled with errors of language and grammar that they border on incomprehensible. What's more, prosecutors apparently cherry-picked terms like “money” and “sea” and translated the sections of conversations that contained those words. What emerges from the full transcript is not a smuggler arranging nefarious deals, but a man stuck in Sudan and desperate to get out.
In one untranslated intercept from January 2016, Seghen tells Berhe that she found him a job and asks him to attend a training session for the position. “Never!” he replies. He says that he plans to “leave to Libya soon” — a quote that makes Berhe the refugee sound like Mered the smuggler. Later in the transcript, Berhe goes on to reveal the desperation he feels, and the danger he faces. “It is either cross the sea,” he says, “or be prey for the sharks.”
So if Berhe is not Mered, why did his phone include conversations and texts about organizing payments for people waiting to be smuggled? The explanation, Seghen says, is simple: One of Berhe's cousins had left Sudan for Libya and needed someone to make a payment to a smuggler on his behalf. Berhe was helping him out. “When you are an Eritrean, we help each other in these things,” says Seghen. “Everybody calls a smuggler.”
Berhe's family gave the Italian court a notarized copy of his Eritrean national identity card, which shows that he was born in 1987 — six years after the birth date for Mered that appears on an official Swedish registry for the birth of his son. The dairyman Berhe worked for in Asmara also wrote a letter confirming that Berhe was employed by him in 2014, at the same time Italian prosecutors were eavesdropping on Mered in Libya. And Berhe's lawyer has lined up more than a dozen witnesses — including friends of Berhe and clients of Mered — who are ready to testify that this is indeed a case of mistaken identity.
Prosecutors, however, seem intent on ignoring any evidence that proves they got the wrong man — including evidence that they themselves have presented. Early in the investigation, the Italians circulated a photo from a Facebook account they identified as belonging to Mered. It shows a man with an angular jaw wearing a blue shirt with thin, red stripes and a large, silver cross around his neck. This, they announced, was “the General,” one of the kingpins of international human smuggling. The problem is, the man in the photo looks nothing like Berhe. But when I point this out to Ferrara, he breezily dismisses the relevance of the photo, even though it was produced as evidence by his own team.
“The picture was never an official picture,” the prosecutor says, leaning back in his chair behind a large wooden desk and puffing on the stub of a thin cigar. “That picture is someone we thought could be the guy. But then again, it's a picture on Facebook, like millions of other pictures.”
But prosecutors in Rome, who are pursuing a separate case against Mered, aren't so quick to dismiss the Facebook photo. When they showed the image to a former client of Mered, he immediately identified the man in the blue shirt. “This is Mered,” he said. “He is the king in Libya, very respected by everyone.” Based on the eyewitness account, the Roman prosecutors concluded that the photo does, in fact, show “the real physical aspect of Medhanie Yehdego Mered.” The man in the photo, in other words, is not Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.
Italian authorities “haven't been able to provide any kind of evidence,” says Estefanos, the Eritrean broadcaster. “They would rather prosecute an innocent man than admit they were wrong.” Cracking down on smugglers, she observes, doesn't address the root cause of the migrant crisis — oppressive governments and crushing poverty. “Even if they had found the real Mered,” Estefanos says, “it wouldn't stop the smuggling business.”
In December, I attended the trial of the man accused of being Medhanie Yehdego Mered. He sat in a glass enclosure in a courtroom in Palermo, with three guards at his back and an interpreter at his side. As he leaned in to listen to the proceedings, he bit his lips and shook his head. He looked like the man in a photo that Seghen had sent me of her brother, only anxious and fatigued.
The trial could drag on for another year. Even if the court concludes that police arrested the wrong man, Berhe's future is uncertain. Italian authorities could try to send him back to Sudan, a country from which he was desperate to escape. Or they could allow him to apply for asylum in Italy, a process that typically takes a year and a half or longer. Either way, as a refugee caught up in Europe's legal system, his prospects do not look good.
Nor has the controversy surrounding the case spurred authorities in Europe to reconsider their crackdown on migration. Quite the contrary: The wrongful arrest of Berhe is being held up as a blueprint for European police and prosecutors to work hand in hand with African dictators. “The arrest of Mered was surely an example of investigative and cooperative success,” boasts Carmine Mosca, the head of the anti-smuggling unit in Palermo. “If we continue to get cooperation from African states, such as we got from Sudan, the likelihood of arresting more smuggling bosses is very high.”
Whatever the fate of Berhe, his story points to the central contradiction of Europe's attempt to wall itself off from immigrants. The European Union, like the United States, is a political project built on the values of liberalism and universal human rights. Yet faced with a perceived risk to its borders — and the rise of nationalist forces eager to lock the gates — Europe has been quick to abandon its core values in the name of security and counterterrorism.
Unlike other refugees, Berhe wound up reaching European soil without having to risk his life crossing the sea. But the security and opportunity he dreamed of remain further away than ever. A victim of misplaced fears, he is more isolated and terrified now than he was in Sudan, awaiting a fate over which he has no control. The experience is taking a toll. “The longer the trial takes,” Calantropo says, “the more he is depressed.”
Since his arrest last May, his sister has only been able to speak with him once. In Italy, only family members are allowed to communicate with inmates. And according to Italian authorities, the man in prison is not her brother. “I don't know how they made this mistake,” Seghen says. “It's not him. The truth will come out sooner or later. But I don't know why they are still saying it's him.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
- “When I saw his picture, I was shocked. My brother is not a human trafficker.”