A kingpin of the migrant trafficking business who made millions smuggling people from Africa to Europe has been extradited from Sudan and will face trial in Italy, Italian and British authorities said Wednesday.
Mered Yehdego Medhane, a 35-year-old from Eritrea, had been on the run since April 2015, when Palermo prosecutors issued arrest warrants for him and 23 other suspected human smugglers, Italian police said in a statement.
Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA), which helped apprehend the fugitive, described Mered in a separate note as "one of the world’s most wanted people smugglers," and connected him to a major shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The accident on October 3, 2013, killed 366 and was at the time the deadliest in recent Mediterranean history. It prompted Italian investigations into who had organized the boat trip, which eventually led to Mered.
"Italian prosecutors say [the suspect] is responsible for the Lampedusa tragedy and is the mastermind behind a major criminal organisation responsible for smuggling thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa into Europe," the NCA said.
He should face trial for leading an international criminal group and abetting illegal migration, with aggravating circumstances linked to the number of smuggled people, inhuman treatment and risk of the life of migrants, Italian and British authorities said.
Mered was caught in Kharthoum on May 24 and was transferred to Rome, landing in Ciampino late Tuesday. The extradition was remarkable since Sudan has no extradition treaties with Italy or the European Union, Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi said at a press conference.
The alleged trafficker had built up a network that could take sub-Saharan migrants to Libya, across the central Mediterranean to Italy, and onwards to the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, Italian authorities said.
He had sufficient contacts to remove blockages along the way. For example, if migrants were arbitrarily jailed in Libya - a recurring event in the war-torn country - he could bribe prison guards to release them, investigations revealed.
In intercepted telephone conversations, accomplices would refer to Mered as the "General," while he liked to compare himself to former Libyan strongman Moamer Gaddafi and would boast that he was better than everybody at packing migrants into boats, prosecutors said.
"We have brought to justice a character with no scruples and without any respect for human life. A man with a key role in the command centre of a criminal network that turns over millions of euros," police executive Renato Cortese said at the Palermo press conference.
According to Gery Ferrara, another Palermo prosecutor, Mered shipped more than 10,000 migrants from Libya to Italy between June and August 2014. Each boat trip, which can contain hundreds of migrants, earned him "from 700,000 dollars to 1 million dollars."
He reinvested some of his ill-gotten fortune in Dubai, Italian authorities said, and was looking into retiring in Sweden and exploring ways to obtain legal residency papers and find a safe haven for his money.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano hailed Mered's arrest as an extraordinary result. "We need to stop these merchants of death at all costs, and to meet this objective we also need to involve the European Union," he said.