The elite antimafia division of the Palermo prosecutor’s office has charged an adverb with the crime of human trafficking, defence lawyers and language specialists have said.
Charges against “Mesi” were brought as part of a sprawling international investigation on human smuggling, but it appears Sicilian magistrates confused the word for “when” in the Tigrinya language of Eritrea with the name of a man they thought was a powerful smuggler.
“Mesi is a human trafficker who has trafficked a woman named Martha from Africa to Europe,” the prosecutors wrote.
A Tigrinya interpreter for the court has said, however, that the word is not a person’s name but means “when”. Three Eritrean interpreters separately said Mesi was not used as a name in Tigrinya.
Despite this, the prosecutors, who had already placed the suspected trafficker under investigation last year, have ignored the court interpreter’s official assessment and last week formally charged “Mesi” with human trafficking.
The person arrested in Khartoum in June 2016 with the help of the UK National Crime Agency appears not to be Mered but an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, who is a victim of mistaken identity.
Among the many factors that point to the wrong person being in the dock are two DNA tests, an array of witnesses, and a documentary by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, which, in collaboration with the Guardian, revealed that the “real” Mered was living in Uganda while Berhe, a former farm worker, had spent the past three years in jail.
Michele Calantropo, Berhe’s lawyer, said: “Not only did the prosecutors mix up a smuggler for a refugee, but they also mistook an adverb for a trafficker.
“The magistrates think my client worked together with this ‘Mesi’ in order to traffic people from Sudan to Europe. In other words, a gang formed from an adverb and a refugee.”
While for Berhe the prosecutors have asked for 14 years in prison, they have not requested a specific sentence for the adverb because Mesi is not a defendant in this trial. However, the Tigrinya interpreters suggest that Mesi is unlikely to appear in court.
Prosecutors declined to comment until the end of the trial.