Eritrean migrant smuggling suspect extradited to Italy
08 June 2016, 22:29
Milan - Italy for the first time has taken custody of one of the alleged organisers of a people-smuggling route through Africa that has moved hundreds of millions of euros across borders and tens of thousands of migrants to Europe, setting the stage for criminal proceedings that delve deeper into the operation.
Medhane Yehdego Mered, a 35-year-old Eritrean, was flown to Rome overnight from Sudan, where he was arrested two weeks ago, a little more than a year after authorities identified him as a prime suspect along with an Ethiopian-born Ermias Ghermay, who remains at large.
"The suspect facing justice is a character without scruples and without any respect for human life; an individual who occupies a key role in the operational centre of a criminal network that moves millions of euros," a chief investigator for Italy's national police force, Renato Cortese, told a news conference in Palermo on Wednesday.
Not only is Mered being investigated for aiding illegal migration dating from 2012, but also on possible charges related to banking fraud for the transfer of funds to pay for the smuggling, said prosecutor Maurizio Scalia.
Authorities said he bragged about packing migrants tightly into boats to maximise his earnings, and that he forced family members to send tranches of money for a migrant to continue on each leg of the trip, which typically included a trip across Africa, the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea and final transport to northern Europe.
"This is a demonstration of how little these organisations and their bosses respect human life, the lives of all those desperate people who for various reasons attempt to reach Italy and Europe in the hope of a better life," said Palermo chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi.
Tapped telephone conversations indicated that Mered paid Libyan officials on several occasions to get migrants who had been detained by Libyan authorities released in groups of 20 at a time.
In the wiretapped calls, Mered also indicated he was going to move to Sweden to join his wife as soon as he could arrange the proper documents. He also was looking to build a house in Eritrea and make investments in Dubai.
Italy has arrested dozens of smuggling suspects, typically people who captain the rickety boats and maintain order on the crowded decks. While they try to blend in as migrants when rescued, prosecutors have had increasing success getting migrants to identify their smugglers.
Premier Matteo Renzi on Wednesday put the number of migrants arriving in Italy this year at 48 000, compared with 51 000 the same time last year.
"The demographic pressure continues to push on Africa and the emergency is not letting up," Renzi said in a Facebook post.