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Captured 'Smuggling Kingpin' Is Actually An Innocent Migrant, Family Says

Italian police images of the captured "kingpin" have prompted an outcry that the suspect in custody is an innocent man with a different name.
Italian police images of the captured "kingpin" have prompted an outcry that the suspect in custody is an innocent man with a different name.

A day after Italy and the U.K. announced that they tracked down and captured a notorious human smuggling kingpin known as "The General," concerns are growing that they may in fact have the wrong man.

The alleged kingpin, variously reported as Medhanie Yehdego Mered and Mered Medhanie, is "accused of buying kidnapped migrants from other criminal gangs, then extorting money from them through rape and torture," as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tells our Newscast unit. The U.K.'s National Crime Agency, which was involved in the investigation, touts him as the likely "mastermind responsible for smuggling thousands of migrants into Europe."

The man in custody was captured by Sudanese police in Khartoum on May 24, according to British investigators. He was extradited to Rome on Tuesday.

However, new images of the suspect have "prompted several Eritreans in Sudan and in Sweden to report they recognized him as a refugee who allegedly has nothing to do with human smuggling," as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

Likewise, the suspect's family says "authorities are holding the wrong man with the same first name and that he's an innocent migrant," Ofeibea says. She adds: "Influential Eritrean broadcaster-cum-activist Meron Estefanos says she has been posting his photo on social media, and has had a huge response from people saying this is not the man who smuggled them."

And The Guardian reports that "three close friends of the detainee alleged ... that he was the victim of mistaken identity." The newspaper says that according to those friends, the man in custody is not Medhanie Yehdego Mered, but actually Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe (also identified as Medhanie Kidane).

"It's the wrong guy," Berhe's cousin Fshaye Tasfai tells the Guardian. "It's incredible — he's not a human trafficker. He's from my family. He lived in my father's house. He left Eritrea in 2014, and then went to Khartoum about a year ago. He lived with my brothers and sisters in Khartoum. He didn't have a job so we use to send him money."

There were many agencies and three countries involved in the arrest, including the Sudanese National Police; the U.K.'s National Crime Agency; prosecutors in Palermo, Italy; the Italian Police; the Italian Ministry of Interior; and the Sudanese and Italian ministries of justice.

After questions arose about the man's identity, Palermo chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi told The Associated Press that they were "undertaking the necessary checks." The wire service said Lo Voi has "shifted some of the responsibility for the possible mix-up onto British and Sudanese authorities who were also involved in the trafficking investigation."

There might be a clear way to check if the suspect in custody is indeed the alleged kingpin, Sylvia says:

"Italian authorities have recordings of phone conversations in which Mered brags about packing migrants tightly into boats to maximize his earnings. Prosecutors could use voice recognition software to help determine whether they have a case of mistaken identity."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.