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Italian prosecutor demands jail term for alleged trafficking kingpin

PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors demanded on Monday a 14-year prison term for an alleged people-smuggling kingpin extradited from Sudan in 2016, dismissing suggestions they had caught the wrong man.

The suspect, identified in court as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, is accused of being a ruthless human trafficker who ran an international network that made millions of dollars by bringing migrants to Europe from Libya via deadly sea routes.

The defendant says his name is really Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre and argues that he was an impoverished refugee from Eritrea who was living quietly in Sudan’s capital Khartoum when he was snatched from a cafe in an international police swoop.

Some of Mered’s alleged victims have said they did not recognize the man in the dock, while relatives of the alleged smuggling mastermind also said it was a case of mistaken identity.

However, Italian prosecutors Calogero Ferrara and Claudio Camilleri have insisted during proceedings, spaced out over three years, that the right man had been caught, thanks partly to the help of Britain’s National Crime Agency.

On Monday they finished their summing up, presenting a 699-page document to the court, demanding that the defendant receive a 14-year jail term and a 50,000-euro ($56,180) fine.

They conceded that a photograph of the accused man released by prosecutors ahead of the arrest was not that of the man eventually picked up in Khartoum, but said they had known the image was wrong and that it should never have been published.

They added that there had been a “campaign in the press” to try to muddy the evidence and protect the trafficker, who they said was known as “the General”.

“It has been shown that the man identified as (Mered) is the one who collected in Sudan ... a substantial number of migrants that he then sent to Libya to human traffickers,” the prosecutors wrote.

“After keeping (migrants) in a state of semi-detention within real “concentration camps” they were then embarked (on boats for Europe),” they added.

At the time of the defendant’s arrest some 360,000 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy in just two years. That number has since risen above 600,000, but the flows have slowed dramatically over the past two years as successive governments in Rome cracked down on people smuggling.

The prosecutors also sought prison time for co-defendants accused of being part of Mered’s smuggling ring who were picked up in Italy, including 10-year terms and 40,000-euro fines for Afomia Eyasu, Andebrahan Tareke and Arouna Said Traore.

The defense is due to wrap up its case at the start of July with a verdict expected later the same month.

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Reporting by Wladimir Pantaleone; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich