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Eritrean ‘people smuggler’ to stand trial in Italy

A judge in Palermo ruled on Wednesday that the man, extradited from Sudan to Italy in June and held in custody ever since, will face trial with the first hearing on November 16th, La Repubblica and other dailies said.

Authorities have identified the man as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, alleged to be a 35-year-old trafficking kingpin known as “the general” accused of sending thousands of migrants to Europe and hundreds to their deaths at sea.

But people claiming to be family and friends of the arrested man have come forward to say that he is Mered Tesfamariam, 29, a carpenter who was trying to get to the United States and had nothing to do with trafficking.

The decision to put the man on trial came despite a sound engineer telling the court on Wednesday that he was unable to tell whether the accused’s voice matched that of the smuggler caught on a wiretap during police investigations, the reports said.

Mered has been on an international wanted list since last year after being identified as the man who organized the packing of migrants onto a boat that sank in 2013 off the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming at least 360 lives in one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean.

He is accused of smuggling up to 8,000 migrants a year into Europe and Italy, Sudan and Britain had hailed his arrests as significant blow to the people smuggling business.

Some 130,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy from Africa so far this year and more than 10,000 have perished in the Mediterranean since 2014 while trying to reach Europe.

Crackdown on smugglers

Around 2,000 migrants have died making the crossing already this year, and numerous reports from those who have made the journey say that smugglers in Libya threaten them with death if they refuse to board the boat or try to escape.

An EU-wide operation to crack down on smuggling gave officers aboard European warships patrolling the water increased powers to board and search vessels and make arrests at sea as of October last year, and some smugglers have been imprisoned.

However, tracking down those responsible can be difficult; earlier in September two men accused of smuggling migrants were acquitted by a Palermo judge, who ruled the men had had “no other choice” than to steer the boat, after being threatened by armed smugglers.