ROME (AP) — A court in Palermo, Sicily, ruled Friday that the wrong Eritrean man was arrested and tried as a migrant smuggling kingpin and ordered him released from jail, a ruling cheered by supporters who had for years championed his claim of mistaken identity.
Defense lawyer Michele Calantropo told The Associated Press that his client, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, "cried for joy" when the court ordered him released from jail, three years after he had been extradited to Italy from Sudan on a charge of human trafficking.
But while the court exonerated him of the trafficking charge, it convicted him of a lesser charge — aiding illegal immigration — for helping two cousins reach Italy, based on investigations conducted after Behre was extradited to Italy, Calantropo said.
The court sentenced him on that charge to five years in prison. But since Behre already spent three years behind bars under a warrant for the wrong man, it was likely under Italy's justice system that, as a first offender, he won't have to do any more time in jail.
The also court convicted five co-defendants of aiding illegal immigration, Calantropo said.
Prosecutors had argued the defendant was Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin who profited as thousands of migrants were smuggled to Italy on unseaworthy boats launched from Libya. They had asked the court to convict him and give a 14-year prison term.
Palermo Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi brushed off the ruling that the wrong man had been tried as a kingpin.
"The court recognized that it was a person involved in aiding illegal immigration," Lo Voi said. "Thus (he was) not a poor carpenter unjustly persecuted," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.
Even as the suspect was extradited to Italy in 2016, doubts rose up about whether prosecutors actually had the right man. One of the defendant's sisters, who lives in Norway, said she recognized her brother in extradition photos but said he was living a "normal" life in Sudan and had nothing to do with human smuggling.
After his extradition to Italy, a Sweden-based refugee advocate who is Eritrean, Meron Estefanos, said she started receiving calls from people who told her authorities had arrested the wrong man.
Calantropo said his client was a refugee from Eritrea who was in Sudan in hopes of himself migrating from Africa. He was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, with the help of Britain's National Crime Agency. During the trial, the man told the court that Sudanese police beat him and stole his identity document.
Calantropo presented an expert's analysis of a voice that been recorded in phone conversations intercepted by Italian police, who concluded the voice was not Behre's.
During the trial, the lawyer told the court more than 28,000 signatures were gathered on petitions backing the defendant's wrong identification claim.
Outside the courthouse Friday, his supporters rejoiced at the ruling. They wore T-shirts emblazoned with Behre's photo and the words "Free our innocent brother."
In the past few years, thousands of migrants have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea when their flimsy, overcrowded smuggling boats sank or capsized.
Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.
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