Italian court rules wrong Eritrean accused of trafficking

National News

A court in Palermo, Sicily, ruled on Friday that the wrong Eritrean man was arrested and tried as a migrant smuggling kingpin and ordered him released from jail, to the jubilation of international supporters who had championed for years the defendant's claim of mistaken identity.

Defense lawyer Michele Calantropo told The Associated Press that his client, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, "cried for joy" when he heard the court order him released from jail, three years after he had been extradited to Italy from Sudan on a charge of human trafficking.

But while the court exonerated him of the trafficking charge, it convicted him of a lesser charge - aiding illegal immigration - for helping two cousins reach Italy, based on investigations conducted after Behre was extradited to Italy, Calantropo said.

The court sentenced him on that charge to five years in prison. But since Behre already spent three years behind bars under a warrant for the wrong man, it was likely under Italy's justice system, that, as a first offender, he won't have to do any more time in jail.

Prosecutors had argued the defendant was Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin who profited as thousands of migrants were smuggled to Italy on unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores. They had asked the court to convict him and give a 14-year prison term.

They didn't immediately react to the ruling.

Even as the suspect set foot in Italy in 2016, escorted by Italian police, a chorus of doubts rose up about whether prosecutors actually had the man they claimed.

One of the defendant'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 said she recognized her brother in the images of the man being extradited to Italy.

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