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Eritreans Accused of Human Trafficking to Face Second Trial in Italy

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Prosecutors say Medhanie Berhe, 29, is in fact Medhanie Mered, a notorious 35-year-old people-smuggler

An Eritrean refugee accused of being the most influential people-smuggler in north Africa will face a second trial in Italy despite the failure of prosecutors to provide a single witness to testify against him during his initial prosecution.

Prosecutors say that Medhanie Berhe, a 29-year-old former milk-hand, is in fact Medhanie Mered, a notorious 35-year-old people-smuggler who has sent thousands of Eritrean refugees from Sudan to Libya, and then onwards to Italy.

Berhe was extradited to Italy in June, amid initial fanfare from the Italian and British police, who were involved in the operation, and who claimed to have caught a kingpin of north African smuggling.

Berhe’s family hoped he would be swiftly released, after several of Mered’s former passengers said in court and in interviews with the Guardian that Italy had arrested the wrong man. His relatives also produced documents proving Berhe’s actual identity.

But on Wednesday their hopes were dashed when a Sicilian judge sent Berhe’s case to a higher court for a longer trial. The decision came despite a sound engineer summoned by the court testifying that he was unable to tell whether the accused’s voice was the same as the one heard in an undercover recording of the smuggler during police investigations. “The result of our comparison is inconclusive, ineffectual,” the engineer told the court. “We can’t state if the man arrested is the same as the smuggler wiretapped in 2014.”

No prosecution witness was able to identify Berhe as Mered. Additionally, photographs taken from Berhe’s phone – which prosecutors said were of the smuggler’s dead victims – were shown to have been taken from an Asian website. After Berhe handed over access to his social media accounts, prosecutors did not find further evidence to present to court.

Prosecutors say Berhe might have had two identities, and they have been able to prove that Berhe twice called smugglers in Libya earlier this year. But his lawyer, Michele Calantropo, highlighted how members of the Eritrean diaspora are often forced to contact smugglers to facilitate payment for friends and relatives trapped or kidnapped in Libya.

Calantropo also said that Berhe had been in a refugee camp in Ethiopia at the time prosecutors said he was wiretapped while working as a smuggler in Libya.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Calantropo said: ‘’We’ll wait for this new trial to prove that my client is innocent. We hope to produce new evidences within this month.”

Maurizio Scala, the prosecutor who led the investigation, told the Guardian: “We are pleased with the decision of going on a higher degree of judgment. It means the evidences we produced are consistent and deserve another legal proceedings and level of judgment.”

Britain’s National Crime Agency, which claimed a role in Berhe’s arrest, has consistently denied arresting the wrong man. Michael Aron, Britain’s ambassador in Sudan, whose embassy also lauded Britain’s role, has never responded to requests for comment.