PALERMO, Italy: An Italian court ruled on Friday (Jul 12) 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 five-year prison term and a fine of €100,000 (US$112,450).
Because he has already spent three years behind bars, the court said he could be freed.
"He cried like a child when he was told that the judges had recognised it was mistaken identity and ordered his immediate release," his lawyer, Michele Calantropo, told reporters outside the Sicilian court where the verdict was delivered.
The ruling represented 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".
The defendant, arrested by police in a coffee shop in Sudan's capital Khartoum, always maintained that he was an impoverished refugee called Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe with no criminal background.
"The court has accepted our position. He is not the General," Calantropo said, adding that Berhe would appeal against the guilty verdict for the lesser offence and wanted to stay in Italy.
"Today we have applied for asylum for him," he said.
Some of Mered's alleged victims had testified 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, which were spaced out over three years, that the right man had been caught, thanks partly to the help of Britain's National Crime Agency.
They had demanded a 14-year prison sentence.
"The court has recognised that this man was a human trafficker," chief prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi told reporters, adding that his office would read the court's full report on the case before deciding whether to appeal the reduced verdict.
The court found five other men - three Eritreans and nationals from Ivory Coast and Ghana - guilty of various human smuggling offences, handing them terms of up to five years, three months in prison plus fines of up to €60,000.
At the time of Berhe'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.
Italy and Britain worked together for more than an year trying to track the General, using telephone intercepts to follow his movements before deciding to request his arrest by Sudanese authorities in June 2016.
During his trial, Berhe acknowledged phoning contacts in Libya, but said he was merely looking to talk to relatives hoping to escape to Europe, like many Eritrean nationals.