Italian court mulls fate of 6 accused of migrant trafficking

FILE - This June 7, 2016 file photo taken from a video and released by the Italian Police shows a man identified by prosecutors as Medhane Yehdego Mered, center, a 35-year-old Eritrean, arrested two weeks earlier in Sudan, upon his arrival at Ciampino's airport, on the outskirts of Rome. On Friday, July 12, 2019, a court in Sicily will deliberate the fate of alleged migrants smugglers, including an Eritrean who claims his is a case of mistaken ID. The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo contends the defendant's identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he's innocent, prosecutors insist his client is Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin. ( Italian Police via AP/files)
FILE - In this June 9, 2106 file photo, Hiweet Berhe Tesfamarian Kidane, holds photocopies of documents she told the Associated Press belong to her brother Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre during an interview in Oslo. On Friday, July 12, 2019, a court in Sicily will deliberate the fate of alleged migrants smugglers, including an Eritrean who claims his is a case of mistaken ID. The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo contends the defendant's identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he's innocent, prosecutors insist his client is Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin. (AP Photo/David Keyton, files)
A man identified by prosecutors as Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin, sits behind the bars during a trial inside the Ucciardone bunker hall in the Sicilian town of Palermo, Italy, Friday, July 12, 2019. The Palermo court on Friday began deliberating the fate of six alleged migrant smugglers, including an Eritrean whose claims that his is a case of mistaken identity have garnered international attention. The defendant’s lawyer, Michele Calantropo, contends the defendant’s identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he’s innocent. (Igor Petty/ANSA via AP)
FILE - In this June 9, 2106 file photo, Hiweet Berhe Tesfamarian Kidane, holds photocopies of documents she told the Associated Press belong to her brother Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre during an interview in Oslo. On Friday, July 12, 2019, a court in Sicily will deliberate the fate of alleged migrants smugglers, including an Eritrean who claims his is a case of mistaken ID. The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo contends the defendant's identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he's innocent, prosecutors insist his client is Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin. (AP Photo/David Keyton, files)

ROME — A court in Palermo, Sicily, on Friday began deliberating the fate of six people accused of migrant smuggling, including an Eritrean man whose claims of mistaken identity have garnered international attention.

The defendant's lawyer, Michele Calantropo, said it was unclear when the court might announce a verdict.

Prosecutors insist his client is Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin who profited as thousands of migrants were smuggled to Italy on unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores.

Calantropo says, however, the defendant's identity is Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and that he's innocent. He said his client is a refugee from Eritrea and who was in Sudan in hopes of himself migrating from Africa.

The man was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, with the help of Britain's National Crime Agency and extradited to Italy in 2016. On Friday he sat behind bars in a courtroom-holding cell.

But even as the suspect set foot in Italy, escorted by Italian police, doubts rose about whether prosecutors actually had the man they claimed.

One of the defendant's sisters, who lives in Norway, said her brother was living a "normal" life in Sudan and had nothing to do with human smuggling. She said she recognized her brother in the images of the man being extradited to Italy.

A Sweden-based broadcaster who is Eritrean has told reporters said she has started receiving calls from people who told her authorities had arrested the wrong man.

During the trial, the man who calls himself Behre told the court that Sudanese police beat him and stole his identity document. He insisted that before arriving in Sudan he had been in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the Italian news agency ANSA quoted the defendant as telling the court in April.

Calantropo presented to the court an expert's analysis of a voice, which had been recorded in the course of phone conversations intercepted by Italian police. The expert's conclusion was that the voice was not Behre's.

During the trial, the lawyer told the court that more than 28,000 signatures were gathered on petitions in Italy, Britain, Germany and Greece, in solidarity with the defendant claiming to be a victim of wrong identification.

Prosecutors asked the court to convict Mered of criminal association for the purpose of human trafficking as well as trafficking itself and sentence him to 14 years in prison.

In the past few years, thousands of migrants have drowned or gone missing in the central Mediterranean when their flimsy, overcrowded smuggling boats sank or capsized.

___

Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.

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