ROME (AP) — The Eritrean man extradited to Italy under great fanfare as an alleged kingpin of a migrant smuggling ring told authorities on Friday that his arrest in Sudan was a case of mistaken identity and denied that calls from his phone to Libya were related to trafficking, his lawyer said.
"It is clear for him he is not the man who is smuggling or trafficking humans," Michele Calantropo said outside the Rome prison where the suspect was questioned by prosecutors from Sicily, leading Italy's anti-smuggling investigations in the presence of a judge.
Prosecutors identified the suspect as Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged mastermind of a migrant smuggling ring that has brought thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Italy via lawless Libya. Within hours of the announcement, however, the Eritrean diaspora in Europe starting buzzing with reports that the man escorted off the plane was not Mered, but an Eritrean refugee with the same first name who had been living in Sudan.
Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano declined to comment on the case, telling reporters in Luxembourg that competent authorities were working on it.
The news agency ANSA, reporting from Palermo, said that the suspect admitted to some intercepted calls that investigators believe prove his role in the smuggling ring. ANSA also said that the smuggler Mered is known to have used aliases.
Calantropo told The Associated Press that the two or three phone calls in question were to a Libyan number, but that his client said they were to a cousin and had nothing to do with trafficking. The calls were traced during the investigation and were part of the documents that formed the basis of the arrest warrant.
"He confirmed the calls from 2016. He had phone calls with a Libyan cell phone because there was a cousin in Libya. He did not admit to any contact with smugglers," Calantropo said.
The man in custody has been identified by many in the Eritrean community, including his sister, a close friend of the family and a Swedish-based Eritrean broadcaster who fielded calls after the arrest, as Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. Medhane and Medhanie are different transliterations of the same name.
Meron Estefanos, the broadcaster, has interviewed Mered, the smuggling suspect, in the past, albeit by telephone, and said she quickly realized it was two different people.
She said Mered told her he was responsible for smuggling 13,000 people over a two-year period and that he didn't supply migrants with life jackets because such a large-scale purchase would draw suspicion.
Calantropo said that British authorities and the Sudanese police who arrested the suspect two weeks ago maintained they had the right man and that Italian authorities were now taking steps to verify his identity. Calantropo said he is requesting documents from relatives in Norway and Sudan.
He said no requests for DNA samples or fingerprint verifications have been made so far.
The lawyer made a request to release his client from jail, arguing that he is not a danger. He expects a ruling next week.
A request for an indictment has already been made, and Calantropo said he expects the case to proceed to a preliminary hearing.
He added his client says he does not speak Arabic, as Mered is known to do, and has never been to Libya. Mered is 35, while Berhe is 30, according to documents provided to The Associated Press by his sister in Norway.
An Eritrean political asylum seeker living in Sicily says the man being held in an Italian jail grew up in his house and that he has no connection whatsoever to smuggling networks.
Fishaye Tesfay told The Associated Press by telephone from Palermo that his family in Sudan notified him after news of the arrest swept through the Eritrean community. He was shocked to see the picture of the man he considers a brother plastered all over his Facebook feed as a criminal suspect.
"This is a big error," said Tesfay, a 42-year-old political asylum seeker who has been in Italy for 13 years.
Tesfay said Berhe is much younger than the alleged trafficker and that they bear no physical resemblance.
"He is not working as a smuggler. He is a migrant," Tesfay said.
He said Ethiopian authorities would have Berhe's fingerprints because he arrived there as a migrant from Eritrea in 2014, and it should be possible to quickly verify the mistake. Berhe left the next year for Sudan, where both men have family members.
Italian authorities took five months to clear a suspect jailed on suspicion of participating in the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia after questions about his identity emerged. It was eventually proved he was in Italy at the time of the attack and had reported his passport missing.
This story has been corrected to say Berhe is 30 years old, not 27.
Barry reported from Milan. David Keyton contributed from Stockholm and Elias Meseret from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.