ROME (AP) — A court in Palermo, Sicily, ruled on Friday that the wrong Eritrean man was arrested and tried as a migrant smuggling kingpin and ordered him released from jail, to the jubilation of international supporters who had championed for years the defendant's claim of mistaken identity.
Defense lawyer Michele Calantropo told The Associated Press that his client, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, "cried for joy" when he heard the court order him released from jail, three years after he had been extradited to Italy from Sudan on a charge of human trafficking.
But while the court exonerated him of the trafficking charge, it convicted him of a lesser charge — aiding illegal immigration — for helping two cousins reach Italy, based on investigations conducted after Behre was extradited to Italy, Calantropo said.
The court sentenced him on that charge to five years in prison. But since Behre already spent three years behind bars under a warrant for the wrong man, it was likely under Italy's justice system, that, as a first offender, he won't have to do any more time in jail.
Prosecutors had argued the defendant was Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin who profited as thousands of migrants were smuggled to Italy on unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores. They had asked the court to convict him and give a 14-year prison term.
They didn't immediately react to the ruling.
Even as the suspect set foot in Italy in 2016, escorted by Italian police, a chorus of doubts rose up about whether prosecutors actually had the man they claimed.
One of the defendant's sisters, who lives in Norway, said her brother was living a "normal" life in Sudan and had nothing to do with human smuggling. She said she recognized her brother in the images of the man being extradited to Italy.
In 2016, immediately after Behre's images appeared in TV coverage of his extradition to Italy, a Sweden-based refugee advocate and radio journalist who is Eritrean, Meron Estefanos, said she started receiving calls from people who told her authorities had arrested the wrong man.
During the trial, the man who calls himself Behre told the court that Sudanese police beat him and stole his identity document. He insisted that before arriving in Sudan he had been in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the Italian news agency ANSA quoted the defendant as telling the court in April.
Calantropo presented to the court an expert's analysis of a voice, which had been recorded in the course of phone conversations intercepted by Italian police. The expert's conclusion was that the voice was not Behre's.
During the trial, the lawyer told the court that more than 28,000 signatures were gathered on petitions in Italy, Britain, Germany and Greece, in solidarity with the defendant claiming to be a victim of wrong identification.
Outside the courthouse, supporters rejoiced when they heard the court had ruled the man sitting in the steel-barred courtroom holding cage wasn't the alleged trafficker.
They wore T-shirts emblazoned with Behre's photo and the words "Free our innocent brother."
Calantropo had told the court his client was a refugee from Eritrea who was in Sudan in hopes of himself migrating from Africa.
The man was arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, with the help of Britain's National Crime Agency.
The court convicted five co-defendants also of aiding illegal immigration, Calantropo said.
In the past few years, thousands of migrants have drowned or gone missing in the central Mediterranean when their flimsy, overcrowded smuggling boats sank or capsized.
Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.