ROME - A court in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, ruled Friday that the Eritrean man extradited from Sudan to Italy because he was suspected of being a human trafficking kingpin known as "the General" was a victim of mistaken identity.
Eritrean citizen Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre was arrested in a coffee shop in Khartoum and extradited from Sudan three years ago. Italian authorities believed he was a human trafficking kingpin, but the court ruled it was a case of mistaken identity.
His attorney, Michele Calantropo, said his client cried with joy when he heard the court decision. Applause broke out in court, and Behre's relatives in the courtroom rejoiced, as did supporters of his innocence outside the court. Calantropo said his client was not the human trafficking mastermind the Italians had sought.
"The court verdict says that my client is not 'the General,' " she said, adding that she had maintained this since his arrest.
The lawyer added, however, that her client was convicted of the lesser charge of helping two cousins immigrate to Italy illegally. The sentence was a fine of $112,000 and a five-year prison term, but given that he has spent three years in jail, it was unlikely he would have to go back behind bars. Calantropo said the ruling would be appealed.
From the outset, it had appeared doubtful that authorities had the right man. During the trial, Behre told the court Sudanese police had beaten him and stolen his identification document. He always insisted he was not the man they wanted and that he had been a refugee at a camp in Ethiopia.
But prosecutors insisted he was the human trafficker and requested he serve a 14-year prison term.
Meanwhile, thousands of signatures were gathered on petitions in different countries, including Italy, Britain and Germany, saying Behre was a victim of mistaken identity.