Italian prosecutors are looking into claims that they got the wrong man in a major operation that led to the arrest and extradition of an Eritrean man presented as a major human smuggler.
On Wednesday, Italian and British anti-crime agencies announced the arrest of Medhane Yehdego Mered, who was caught in Sudan and flown to Italy to face trial.
Italian police released a video of the man they said was Mered arriving at an airport in Rome, but Meron Estefanos, the Sweden-based executive director of the Eritrean Initiative on Human Rights, told Al Jazeera it was a case of mistaken identity.
Estefanos, who says she has interviewed Mered in the past, said the man in the footage was not Mered, but Medhane Tesfamariam Kidane, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan.
“These are two different people,” she said from Stockholm. “If you notice the one that the Italians have, he is shorter and younger, while the real Medhane Mered is older, a 36-year-old much taller [man]. If you see the pictures close-up, it just doesn’t add up.”
Estefanos also said she had spoken to relatives and friends of the man transferred to Italy who all “confirmed” that it was a different person.
“Just to be sure, I also interviewed many of the refugees that the actual smuggler has smuggled into Europe, and all say that it is not the same person,” Estefanos added.
“He happened to have the same first name as the smuggler, but [it is] not the right person,” she said. “I would not put my credibility just like this. I hope for the sake of this innocent young man, that they release him as soon as possible and apologise to him.”
Earlier on Thursday, Francesco Lo Voi, chief prosecutor in the city of Palermo, had said the authorities were “carrying out the appropriate checks.
“At the moment all we can say is that the identification, arrest, handover and extradition to Italy of the fugitive were communicated to us in an official manner by [Britain’s] National Crime Agency and by Sudanese authorities,” the ANSA news agency quoted him as saying.
The suspect is being held in Rome’s Rebibbia jail and is due to face his first interrogation on Friday, ANSA said.
A spokesman for the National Crime Agency (NCA) in London said it was too soon to comment on media reports, and referred further questions to Italian authorities.
The suspect has been described as a ruthless criminal known as the “General”, a self-styled name referring to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
In a statement, the NCA said he was “one of the world’s most-wanted people smugglers”, while Italian police executive Renato Cortese said in a Wednesday press conference that he led “a criminal network that turns over millions of euros”.
But unnamed friends of the arrested, quoted by the BBC, said his real name was Mered Tesfamariam. A woman in Norway who said she was his sister told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that her brother was “completely innocent”.
The Guardian, also quoting friends, named the man as Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, and said he was a 27-year-old refugee arrested in a street in Khartoum late last month.
“It’s incredible – he’s not a human trafficker. He’s from my family,” Fshaye Tasfai, an Eritrean refugee in Sicily, told The Guardian.
Two lawyers have been named to defend the Eritrean man held in Rome. Neither was immediately available for comment.