An Italian court ruled that an Eritrean accused of being a human trafficking kingpin known as "the general" was telling the truth when he claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.
An Italian court ruled on Friday that an Eritrean man extradited from Sudan in 2016 was the victim of mistaken identity and dismissed allegations that he was a ruthless, human-trafficking kingpin.
However, judges ruled that the defendant was nonetheless guilty of abetting people smuggling and handed him a 5-year prison term. Because he has already spent three years behind bars, the court said he could be freed.
The verdict represents a setback to both Italian and British investigators who worked together to secure the arrest of the man who was identified in court as Medhanie Yehdego Mered — a notorious Eritrean smuggler nicknamed "the general."
Both countries hailed his capture at the time as a rare victory in the battle against human trafficking. But he always insisted he was an impoverished refugee called Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre with no criminal background.
"The court has accepted our position. He is not 'the general'," Medhanie's lawyer Michele Calantropo told reporters outside the Sicilian court where the verdict was handed down.
He said his defendant would appeal against the guilty verdict for the lesser offence and wanted to stay in Italy.
"Today we have applied for asylum for him," Calantropo said.
Some of Mered's alleged victims had testified in court that they did not recognise the arrested man, while relatives of the alleged smuggling mastermind also said it was a case of mistaken identity.
However, Italian prosecutors Calogero Ferrara and Claudio Camilleri insisted during proceedings, spaced out over three years, that the right man had been caught, thanks partly to the help of Britain's National Crime Agency.
At the time of Medhanie's arrest some 360,000 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy in just two years, with many hundreds drowning while trying to reach Europe.
The number of migrant crossings has since risen above 600,000, but the flows have slowed dramatically over the past two years as successive governments in Rome have cracked down on people smuggling.