ROME (AP) — Doubts emerged Thursday over the identity of an Eritrean man extradited to Italy who Italian prosecutors had hailed a day earlier as a major catch in their Mediterranean migrant smuggling investigation.
Palermo chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi told The Associated Press his office was "undertaking the necessary checks" but said he found media reports that he had the wrong man in custody "unusual." He then sought to shift the blame for any problems onto intelligence authorities in Britain and Sudan.
The question centers on whether the man escorted off a plane in Rome by Italian agents on Tuesday night after being extradited from Sudan was really Medhane Yehdego Mered, said by Italian prosecutors to be a kingpin in the multi-million euro network that has moved hundreds of thousands of migrants from North Africa to Europe.
Meron Estefanos, a Sweden-based Eritrean broadcaster who said she has interviewed Mered in the past, told the AP the man in the video was not Mered, but Medhanie Tesfamariam Kidane, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan.
"I realized it was two different people," said Estefanos, who is well known in the Eritrean diaspora. "Many people started calling me saying 'This is the wrong person.'"
She said authorities may have gotten the two men mixed up because they have similar first names.
"There is all kinds of evidence that this is the wrong person, so sooner or later they will have to release him," Estefanos said.
One of Kidane's sisters who lives in Norway said her brother was living a "normal" life in Sudan and had nothing to do with human smuggling. She found out about the arrest from another sister in Sudan and said she recognized her brother in the images from Italy.
"I'm shocked. My brother is innocent. He hasn't done anything," Hiweet Berhe Tesfamarian Kidane, said, speaking by phone from Oslo. She said her brother is 27 years old, whereas Italian police say Medhane Yehdego Mered is 35.
By Thursday afternoon, Lo Voi had shifted some of the responsibility for the possible mix-up onto British and Sudanese authorities who were also involved in the trafficking investigation.
"The identification of the suspect, his arrest, his handing over and his extradition to Italy were communicated to us in an official manner by the British National Crime Agency and the Sudanese authorities through Interpol," he told the ANSA news agency.
Britain's National Crime Agency said it was aware of a report that the wrong man was arrested but said it was too soon to speculate.
At a press conference on Wednesday in Palermo, Italian authorities had said Mered played a key role in a human smuggling network, calling him "a character without scruples and without any respect for human life." They said he had been arrested two weeks ago in Khartoum and had been named as a key suspect in the Italian human smuggling investigation more than a year ago.
The suspect was facing his first interrogation Friday by prosecutors at Rome's Rebibbia prison, said his attorney, Michele Calantropo. In a phone interview, Calantropo said he had been contacted by Kidane's sisters, who he said were working to come up with documentation proving that their brother wasn't Mered.
The case harks back to another apparently bungled intelligence operation that resulted in the May 2015 arrest of a young Moroccan migrant in Milan accused of involvement in Tunisia's Bardo Museum massacre. Italy's interior minister had hailed the arrest of Abdelmajid Touil as a show of international intelligence cooperation after he was caught on a Tunisian arrest warrant.
But after spending five months in detention, Touil was ordered freed after Italian courts refused to extradite him and shelved their own terror investigation into him. Doubts had immediately been raised about whether Tunisian authorities had got the wrong man after Touil was proven to have been in Italy before and after the attack and had reported his passport missing.
So far this year, nearly 48,000 migrants saved at sea from smugglers' boats have been brought to Italy, compared with 51,000 the same time last year. More than 2,800 lives have been lost this year, most on the route from North Africa to Italy, with the vast majority simply disappearing at sea as unseaworthy vessels sank or capsized, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. Danica Kirka in London and Francesco Sportelli in Rome contributed to this report.