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Italian naval ships have been deployed to try to stop migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean

The army general in charge of eastern Libya has threatened to confront Italian naval ships that are heading to the Libyan coast to help stop the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. 

Italy’s parliament has authorised the country’s navy to carry out the mission but the presence of Italian ships in Libya’s waters prompted angry reactions inside the north African country. 

General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, threatened to use his own forces to repel the Italians if they came into Libyan sovereign waters. 

“Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, issues orders to the Libyan naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ras Lanuf and Tripoli to confront any marine unit that enters the Libyan waters without the permission of the army,” the Libyan National Army said in a statement.

Gen Haftar's forces control most of eastern Libya
Gen Haftar's forces control most of eastern Libya Credit: ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

Gen Haftar’s forces are unlikely to open fire on the Italians and risk a confrontation with a major European country. But the threat may complicate the already delicate Italian mission in Libya and strain relations between Gen Haftar and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. 

The warning also reflects broader anger in Libya over the intervention of Italy, a former colonial power that ruled Libya for the first half of the 20th century.   

Italy’s government said it was sending the two ships to try to curb the flow of migrants and refugees, which has seen 600,000 people arrive in Italy in the past four years. 

Migration has become a major political issue in Italy and the government is under pressure to cut the number of people arriving. 

Italy said it was deploying the warships at the request of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and insisted it had no intention of violating Italian sovereignty. 

Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said there was no attempt to undermine Libyan sovereignty 
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said there was no attempt to undermine Libyan sovereignty  Credit: Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP

"There will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aim is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty," Roberta Pinotti, the Italian defence minister, told parliament. 

But in widespread social media posts, Libyans protested against the Italian presence. Many posted pictures of Omar al-Mukhtar, a national hero who fought the Italian forces in the early 1900s. 

One Italian patrol boat has already reached Libyan waters and a second is due to arrive soon. 

Human rights groups have criticised the Italian naval mission, saying it would leave people languishing in detention centres in Libya where they face potential torture or even death.    

“Italy, along with other EU member states, should be focusing on increasing its search and rescue operations. Instead it has chosen to shirk its responsibilities and endanger the very people it says it is trying to help,” said Amnesty International. 

Meanwhile, Italy warned NGO groups carrying out rescue missions in the Mediterranean that would have to halt their operations if they did not agree to a new set of rules governing their behaviour. 

The government warning came after a German NGO was accused of aiding illegal immigration by meeting with people traffickers off the Libyan coast and taking migrants directly from the traffickers onto their boat.

The Iuventa Ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet was impounded
The Iuventa Ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet was impounded Credit: Elio Desiderio/ANSA via AP

Italian prosecutors said that the NGO, Jugend Rettet, collaborated with the smugglers out of a zeal for humanitarian work but that it may have broken immigration law in the process. The NGO met the smugglers three times between October 2016 and June 2017 but no money was exchanged, prosecutors said.  

The group’s 100-foot-long boat, Iuventa, was impounded and the NGO said it was assessing the accusations. The allegations fueled calls by Italian MPs for tougher laws on NGO activities. 

Three of the nine humanitarian groups carrying out rescue operations have signed up to the new Italian regulations, including Save the Children. Among those who have refused to sign is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).     

MSF said the new regulations “will not only be unhelpful for rescue activities, but could result in reduced rescue capacity, and consequently result in further drownings”.

Gen Haftar and the prime minister of the UN-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, agreed to a ceasefire deal last week after talks brokered by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. 

Analysts were sceptical that the agreement would end the political chaos in Libya. 

The deal gave Gen Haftar permission to continue military operations for counter-terrorism reasons and the general considers almost all his enemies to be terrorists.   

The UN-backed government also has little control over a series of militias that are aligned with it and may prove too weak to force its side to stop fighting.



Italy impounds German NGO rescue boat suspected of aiding illegal immigration
Refugees on board the Iuventa. Photo: IUVENTA Jugend Rettet e.V./dpa
16:25 CEST+02:00
Italian authorities on Wednesday impounded a German NGO's migrant rescue boat on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration, police said.

The Iuventa, operated by the Jugend Rettet organisation, was "preventatively" impounded on the Italian island of Lampedusa on the orders of a prosecutor based in Trapani, Sicily, the state police force said in a statement.

"Enquiries begun in October 2016, and conducted with the use of sophisticated techniques and investigative technology, have produced circumstantial evidence of the motorboat Iuventa being used for activities facilitating illegal immigration," the statement said.

More details were to be provided at an afternoon press conference.

The impounding of the Iuventa came as Italy began enforcing a controversial code of conduct for charity boats rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

Jugend Rette was among six of nine NGO's operating search-and-rescue activities in waters off Libya to reject the new rules. Italian authorities say they are necessary to ensure the boats are not effectively encouraging migrants to embark on the perilous crossing.

The NGOs have particularly objected to a requirement to allow an Italian police official to travel on each boat and a ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another while still at sea, which they say could result in avoidable deaths.

Some 600,000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014, putting the country's reception facilities under strain and the centre-left government under pressure over the crisis.

Just over a third of those rescued this year have been saved by NGO boats, up from around a quarter last year.


Concern voiced over Italy's anti-migrant mission

Thursday, 03 August 2017 08:25 Written by

Human Rights Watch says country's new vote could interfere in the rights of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

02 Aug 2017 22:33 GMT

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The migrant crisis looms as a campaign issue in Italy's 2018 elections [Chris McGrath/Getty Images]

Human Rights Watch, the rights advocacy group, has given warning that Italy's naval mission to prevent refugees and migrants from setting sail from Libya for Europe could see Italy commit human-rights abuses.

Italy says its mission is backed by Libya's UN-recognised unity government based in Tripoli.

The Italian parliament on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to providing technical support to the Libyan coastguard in its fight against human traffickers in the hope it would reduce the number of people arriving on Italy's coasts.

Italy's defence minister insisted before the vote that the mission would not be a naval blockade, although legislators from the anti-migrant Northern League, an opposition party, demanded exactly that.

READ MORE: UN urges Europe to help Italy with refugee 'tragedy'

HRW said Italy risked preventing genuine asylum seekers from escaping from a country where migrants face detention in squalid camps and abuse at the hands of traffickers.

"The Italian navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions," said Judith Sunderland, HRW's Europe and Central Asia  associate director.

"After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour."

Such a move "could implicate Italy in human rights abuses".

Italy is expected to begin by sending a logistics ship and patrol boat as well as mechanics to maintain equipment.

Behavioural code

Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Puglia in Italy, said the Italian government has issued a behavioural code, which it wants the 10 international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea to sign.

"Only three out of 10 NGOS have accepted the code, which calls among other points for an armed police officer to be on board, and would forbid transporting any rescued migrant from one vessel to another vessel," she said.

The NGOs that are refusing to comply want some clarity on whether the new conditions are targeted at people smugglers or aimed at stopping the flow of migrants altogether.

Under human-rights law, no one rescued or intercepted by an EU-flagged ship or under the control of an EU member state can be sent back to a place or handed over to authorities where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment.

"This includes pushbacks to Libya or handovers to Libyan forces and applies even if Italy rescues or interdicts people in Libyan territorial waters," HRW's Sunderland said.

"Even if the Italian navy simply provides intelligence to Libyan coastguard forces that leads to the foreseeable apprehension and detention of migrants in abusive conditions, Italy could share responsibility.

"Italy could also be implicated in denying people's right to leave any country and interfering with the right to seek asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights."

Libya has not ratified the international refugee convention and does not have a functioning asylum system.

For its part, the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives, which is allied to General Khalifa Haftar, has voiced strong opposition to the planned deployment of Italian navy vessels in Libya's territorial waters.

The legislators said such a move would be "exporting the illegal migration crisis to Libya" and that having a foreign navy's vessels patrolling Libyan waters would be a "violation of the sovereignty of Libya".

The parliament criticised the Tripoli-based government of Fayez Serraj, prime minister in the unity government, for striking the deal with the Italians.

Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them economic migrants ineligible for asylum, have been brought ashore in Italy after rescue in the last few years.

The migrant crisis looms as a campaign issue in Italy's 2018 elections.


This lengthy article from the New Yorker is an excellent analysis of how not to act to halt trafficking.


The Wrong Man

A case of mistaken identity in Sicily illuminates the failure of efforts to curb the refugee crisis.

July 24, 2017 5:00 AM

“These European governments—their technology is so good, but they know nothing,” an Eritrean smuggler said.

“These European governments—their technology is so good, but they know nothing,” an Eritrean smuggler said.

Illustration by Oliver Munday; photograph by Italian Navy / Marina Militare / Anadolu Agency / Getty (boat)

On October 3, 2013, a Sicilian prosecutor named Calogero Ferrara was in his office in the Palace of Justice, in Palermo, when he read a disturbing news story. Before dawn, a fishing trawler carrying more than five hundred East African migrants from Libya had stalled a quarter of a mile from Lampedusa, a tiny island halfway to Sicily. The driver had dipped a cloth in leaking fuel and ignited it, hoping to draw help. But the fire quickly spread, and as passengers rushed away the boat capsized, trapping and killing hundreds of people.

The Central Mediterranean migration crisis was entering a new phase. Each week, smugglers were cramming hundreds of African migrants into small boats and launching them in the direction of Europe, with little regard for the chances of their making it. Mass drownings had become common. Still, the Lampedusa shipwreck was striking for its scale and its proximity: Italians watched from the cliffs as the coast guard spent a week recovering the corpses.

As news crews descended on the island, the coffins were laid out in an airplane hangar and topped with roses and Teddy bears. “It shocked me, because, maybe for the first time, they decided to show pictures of the coffins,” Ferrara told me. Italy declared a day of national mourning and started carrying out search-and-rescue operations near Libyan waters.

Shortly afterward, a group of survivors in Lampedusa attacked a man whom they recognized from the boat, claiming that he had been the driver and that he was affiliated with smugglers in Libya. The incident changed the way that Ferrara thought about the migration crisis. “I went to the chief prosecutor and said, ‘Look, we have three hundred and sixty-eight dead people in territory under our jurisdiction,’ ” Ferrara said. “We spend I don’t know how much energy and resources on a single Mafia hit, where one or two people are killed.” If smuggling networks were structured like the Mafia, Ferrara realized, arresting key bosses could lead to fewer boats and fewer deaths at sea. The issue wasn’t only humanitarian. With each disembarkation, public opinion was hardening against migrants, and the political appetite for accountability for their constant arrivals was growing. Ferrara’s office regarded smugglers in Africa and Europe as a transnational criminal network, and every boat they sent across the Mediterranean as a crime against Italy.

Ferrara is confident and ambitious, a small man in his forties with brown, curly hair, a short-cropped beard, and a deep, gravelly voice. The walls of his office are hung with tributes to his service and his success. When I met with him, in May, he sat with his feet on his desk, wearing teal-rimmed glasses and smoking a Toscano cigar. Shelves bowed under dozens of binders, each containing thousands of pages of documents—transcripts of wiretaps and witness statements for high-profile criminal cases. In the hall, undercover cops with pistols tucked beneath their T-shirts waited to escort prosecutors wherever they went.

Sicilian prosecutors are granted tremendous powers, which stem from their reputation as the only thing standing between society and the Cosa Nostra. Beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, the Sicilian Mafia waged a vicious war against the Italian state. Its adherents assassinated journalists, prosecutors, judges, police officers, and politicians, and terrorized their colleagues into submission. As Alexander Stille writes in “Excellent Cadavers,” from 1995, the only way to prove that you weren’t colluding with the Mafia was to be killed by it.

In 1980, after it was leaked that Gaetano Costa, the chief prosecutor of Palermo, had signed fifty-five arrest warrants, he was gunned down in the street by the Cosa Nostra. Three years later, his colleague Rocco Chinnici was killed by a car bomb. In response, a small group of magistrates formed an anti-Mafia pool; each member agreed to put his name on every prosecutorial order, so that none could be singled out for assassination. By 1986, the anti-Mafia team was ready to bring charges against four hundred and seventy-five mobsters, in what became known as the “maxi-trial,” the world’s largest Mafia proceeding.

The trial was held inside a massive bunker in Palermo, constructed for the occasion, whose walls could withstand an attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Led by Giovanni Falcone, the prosecutors secured three hundred and forty-four convictions. A few years after the trial, Falcone took a job in Rome. But on May 23, 1992, as he was returning home to Palermo, the Cosa Nostra detonated half a ton of explosives under the highway near the airport, killing Falcone, his wife, and his police escorts. The explosives, left over from ordnance that was dropped during the Second World War, had been collected by divers from the bottom of the Mediterranean; the blast was so large that it registered on earthquake monitors. Fifty-seven days later, mobsters killed one of the remaining members of the anti-Mafia pool, Falcone’s friend and investigative partner Paolo Borsellino.

Following these murders, the Italian military dispatched seven thousand troops to Sicily. Prosecutors were now allowed to wiretap anyone suspected of having connections to organized crime. They also had the authority to lead investigations, rather than merely argue the findings in court, and to give Mafia witnesses incentives for coöperation. That year, magistrates in Milan discovered a nationwide corruption system; its exposure led to the dissolution of local councils, the destruction of Italy’s major political parties, and the suicides of a number of businessmen and politicians who had been named for taking bribes. More than half the members of the Italian parliament came under investigation. “The people looked to the prosecutors as the only hope for the country,” a Sicilian journalist told me.

Shortly after the Lampedusa tragedy, Ferrara, with assistance from the Ministry of Interior, helped organize a team of élite prosecutors and investigators. When investigating organized crime, “for which we are famous in Palermo,” Ferrara said, “you can request wiretappings or interception of live communications with a threshold of evidence that is much lower than for common crimes.” In practice, “it means that when you request of the investigative judge an interception for organized crime, ninety-nine per cent of the time you get it.” Because rescue boats routinely deposit migrants at Sicilian ports, most weeks were marked by the arrivals of more than a thousand potential witnesses. Ferrara’s team started collecting information at disembarkations and migrant-reception centers, and before long they had the phone numbers of drivers, hosts, forgers, and money agents.

The investigation was named Operation Glauco, for Glaucus, a Greek deity with prophetic powers who came to the rescue of sailors in peril. According to Ferrara, Sicily’s proximity to North Africa enabled his investigators to pick up calls in which both speakers were in Africa. Italian telecommunications companies often serve as a data hub for Internet traffic and calls. “We have conversations in Khartoum passing through Palermo,” he said. By monitoring phone calls, investigators gradually reconstructed an Eritrean network that had smuggled tens of thousands of East Africans to Europe on boats that left from Libya.

By 2015, the Glauco investigations had resulted in dozens of arrests in Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Most of the suspects were low-level figures who may not have been aware that they were committing a crime by, for example, taking money to drive migrants from a migrant camp in Sicily to a connection house—a temporary shelter, run by smugglers—in Milan.

But the bosses in Africa seemed untouchable. “In Libya, we know who they are and where they are,” Ferrara said. “But the problem is that you can’t get any kind of coöperation” from local forces. The dragnet indicated that an Eritrean, based in Tripoli, was at the center of the network. He was born in 1981, and his name was Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

On May 23, 2014, Ferrara’s investigative team started wiretapping Mered’s Libyan number. Mered’s network in Tripoli was linked to recruiters and logisticians in virtually every major population center in East Africa. With each boat’s departure, he earned tens of thousands of dollars. In July, Mered told an associate, in a wiretapped call, that he had smuggled between seven and eight thousand people to Europe. In October, he moved to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, for two months. The Italians found his Facebook page and submitted into evidence a photograph of a dour man wearing a blue shirt and a silver chain with a large crucifix. “This is Medhanie,” a migrant who had briefly worked for him told prosecutors in Rome. “He is a king in Libya. He’s very respected. He’s one of the few—perhaps the only one—who can go out with a cross around his neck.”

In 2015, a hundred and fifty thousand refugees and migrants crossed from Libya to Europe, and almost three thousand drowned. Each Thursday afternoon, Eritreans tune in to Radio Erena, a Tigrinya-language station, for a show hosted by the Swedish-Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos. Broadcasting from her kitchen, in Stockholm, she is in touch with hundreds of migrants, activists, and smugglers. Often, when Estefanos criticizes a smuggler, he will call in to her program to complain.

In February, 2015, Estefanos reported that men who worked for Mered were raping female migrants. Mered called in to deny the rape allegations, but he admitted other bad practices and attempted to justify them. “I asked, ‘Why do you send people without life jackets?’ ” Estefanos said. “And he said, ‘I can’t buy life jackets, because if I buy five hundred life jackets I will be suspected of being a smuggler.’ ” He told Estefanos it was true that people went hungry in his connection house, but that it wasn’t his fault. “My people in Sudan—I tell them to send me five hundred refugees, and they send me two thousand,” he said. “I got groceries for five hundred people, and now I have to make it work!”

Mered was becoming wealthy, but he wasn’t the kingpin that some considered him to be. In the spring of 2013, after arriving in Libya as a refugee, he negotiated passage to Tripoli by helping smugglers with menial tasks. Then, in June, he began working with a Libyan man named Ali, whose family owned an empty building near the sea, which could be used as a connection house. According to Mered’s clients, he instructed associates in other parts of East Africa to tell migrants that they worked for Abdulrazzak, known among Eritreans as one of the most powerful smugglers. Those who were duped into paying Mered’s team were furious when they reached the connection house and learned that Mered and Ali were not connected to Abdulrazzak, and that they had failed to strike a deal with the men who launched the boats. When the pair eventually arranged their first departure, all three vessels were intercepted before they could leave Libyan waters, and the passengers were jailed.

By the end of the summer, more than three hundred and fifty migrants were languishing in the connection house. Finally, in September, a fleet of taxis shuttled them to the beach in small groups to board boats. Five days later, the Italian coast guard rescued Mered’s passengers and, therefore, his reputation as a smuggler as well.

In December, Mered brought hundreds of migrants to the beach, including an Eritrean I’ll call Yonas. “He was sick of Tripoli,” Yonas told me. “He was ready to come with us—to take the sea trip.” But the shores were controlled by Libyans; to them, Mered’s ability to organize payments and speak with East African migrants in Tigrinya was an invaluable part of the business. Ali started shouting at Mered and slapping him. “That’s when I understood that he was not that powerful,” Yonas recalled. “Our lives depended on the Libyans, not on Medhanie. To them, he was no better than any of us—he was just another Eritrean refugee.”

In April, 2015, the Palermo magistrate’s office issued a warrant for Mered’s arrest. The authorities also released the photograph of him wearing a crucifix, in the hope that someone might give him up. Days later, Mered’s face appeared in numerous European publications.

News of Mered’s indictment spread quickly in Libya. One night, Mered called Estefanos in a panic. “It’s like a fatwa against me,” he said. “They put my life in danger.” He claimed that, in the days after he was named in the press, he had been kidnapped three times; a Libyan general had negotiated his release. Mered asked Estefanos what would happen to him if he tried to come to Europe to be with his wife, Lidya Tesfu, who had crossed the Mediterranean and given birth to their son in Sweden the previous year. It was as if he hadn’t fully grasped the Italian case against him. Not only did Mered think that the Italians had exaggerated his importance but “he saw himself as a kind of activist, helping people who were desperate,” Estefanos told me.

Shortly before midnight on June 6, 2015, Mered called Estefanos, sounding drunk or high. “He didn’t want me to ask questions,” she told me. “He said, ‘Just listen.’ ” During the next three hours, Mered detailed his efforts to rescue several Eritrean hostages from the Islamic State, which had established a base in Sirte, Libya. Now, Mered said, he was driving out of Libya, toward the Egyptian border, with four of the women in the back of his truck. As Estefanos remembers it, “Mered said, ‘I’m holding a Kalashnikov and a revolver, to defend myself. If something happens at the Egyptian-Libyan border, I’m not going to surrender. I’m going to kill as many as I can, and die myself. Wish me luck!’ ” He never called again.

From that point forward, Estefanos occasionally heard from Mered’s associates, some of whom wanted to betray him and take over the business. Mered was photographed at a wedding in Sudan and spotted at a bar in Ethiopia. He posted photos to Facebook from a mall in Dubai. Italian investigators lost track of him. But on January 21, 2016, Ferrara received a detailed note from Roy Godding, an official from Britain’s National Crime Agency, which leads the country’s efforts against organized crime and human trafficking. Godding wrote that the agency was “in possession of credible and sustained evidence” that Mered had a residence in Khartoum, and that he “spends a significant amount of his time in that city.” The N.C.A. believed that Mered would leave soon—possibly by the end of April—and so, Godding wrote, “we have to act quickly.”

Still, Godding had concerns. In Sudan, people-smuggling can carry a penalty of death, which was abolished in the United Kingdom more than fifty years ago. If the Italian and British governments requested Mered’s capture, Godding said, he should be extradited to Italy, spending “as little time as possible” in Sudanese custody. Although Godding’s sources believed that Mered had “corrupt relationships” with Sudanese authorities, he figured that the N.C.A. and the Palermo magistrate could work through “trusted partners” within the regime. (Sudan’s President has been charged in absentia by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, but the European Union pays his government tens of millions of euros each year to contain migration.)

Ferrara’s team began drawing up an extradition request. The Palermo magistrate had already started wiretapping Mered’s Sudanese number, and also that of his wife, Tesfu, and his brother Merhawi, who had immigrated to the Netherlands two years earlier. The taps on Mered’s number yielded no results. But, on March 19th, Merhawi mentioned in a call that a man named Filmon had told him that Mered was in Dubai and would probably return to Khartoum soon.

In mid-May, the N.C.A. informed Ferrara’s team of a new Sudanese telephone number that they suspected was being used by Mered. The Palermo magistrate started wiretapping it immediately. On May 24th, as the Sudanese authorities welcomed European delegates to an international summit on halting migration and human trafficking, the police tracked the location of the phone and made an arrest.

Two weeks later, the suspect was extradited to Italy on a military jet. The next morning, at a press conference in Palermo, the prosecutors announced that they had captured Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

Coverage of the arrest ranged from implausible to absurd. The BBC erroneously reported that Mered had presided over a “multibillion-dollar empire.” A British tabloid claimed that he had given millions of dollars to the Islamic State. The N.C.A., which had spent years hunting for Mered, issued a press release incorrectly stating that he was “responsible for the Lampedusa tragedy.” Meanwhile, the Palermo prosecutor’s office reportedly said that Mered had styled himself in the manner of Muammar Qaddafi, and that he was known among smugglers as the General—even though the only reference to that nickname came from a single wiretapped call from 2014 that, according to the official transcript, was conducted “in an ironic tone.” Ferrara boasted that Mered had been “one of the four most important human smugglers in Africa.”

On June 10th, the suspect was interrogated by three prosecutors from the Palermo magistrate. The chief prosecutor, Francesco Lo Voi, asked if he understood the accusations against him.

“Why did you tell me that I’m Medhanie Yehdego?” the man replied.

“Did you understand the accusations against you?” Lo Voi repeated.

“Yes,” he said. “But why did you tell me that I’m Medhanie Yehdego?”

“Yeah, apart from the name . . .”

Lo Voi can’t have been surprised by the suspect’s question. Two days earlier, when the Italians released a video of the man in custody—handcuffed and looking scared, as he descended from the military jet—Estefanos received phone calls from Eritreans on at least four continents. Most were perplexed. “This guy doesn’t even look like him,” an Eritrean refugee who was smuggled from Libya by Mered said. He figured that the Italians had caught Mered but used someone else’s picture from stock footage. For one caller in Khartoum, a woman named Seghen, however, the video solved a mystery: she had been looking for her brother for more than two weeks, and was stunned to see him on television. She said that her brother was more than six years younger than Mered; their only common traits were that they were Eritreans named Medhanie.

Estefanos told me, “I didn’t know how to contact the Italians, so I contacted Patrick Kingsley,” the Guardian’s migration correspondent, whose editor arranged for him to work with Lorenzo Tondo, a Sicilian journalist in Palermo. That evening, just before sunset, Ferrara received a series of messages from Tondo, on WhatsApp. “Gery, call me—there’s some absurd news going around,” Tondo, who knew Ferrara from previous cases, wrote. “The Guardian just contacted me. They’re saying that, according to some Eritrean sources, the man in custody is not Mered.”

Ferrara was not deterred, but he was irritated that the Sudanese hadn’t passed along any identification papers or fingerprints. That night, Tondo and Kingsley wrote in the Guardian that Italian and British investigators were “looking into whether the Sudanese had sent them the wrong man.” Soon afterward, one of Ferrara’s superiors informed Tondo that the prosecution office would no longer discuss the arrest. “I’ve decided on a press blackout,” he said.

In recent years, smuggling trials in Italy have often been shaped more by politics than by the pursuit of truth or justice. As long as Libya is in chaos, there is no way to prevent crowded dinghies from reaching international waters, where most people who aren’t rescued will drown. At disembarkations, police officers sometimes use the threat of arrest to coerce refugees into identifying whichever migrant had been tasked with driving the boat, then charge him as a smuggler. The accused is typically represented by a public defender who doesn’t speak his language or have the time, the resources, or the understanding of the smuggling business to build a credible defense. Those who were driving boats in which people drowned are often charged with manslaughter. Hundreds of migrants have been convicted in this way, giving a veneer of success to an ineffective strategy for slowing migration.

When the man being held as Mered was assigned state representation, Tondo intervened. “I knew that this guy was not going to be properly defended,” he told me. “And, if there was a chance that he was innocent, it was my duty—not as a journalist but as a human—to help him. So I put the state office in touch with my friend Michele Calantropo,” a defense lawyer who had previously worked on migration issues. For Tondo, the arrangement was also strategic. “The side effect was that now I had an important source of information inside the case,” he said.

On June 10th, in the interrogation room, the suspect was ordered to provide his personal details. He picked up a pencil and started slowly writing in Tigrinya. For almost two minutes, the only sound was birdsong from an open window. An interpreter read his testimony for the record: “My name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, born in Asmara on May 12, 1987.”

That afternoon, Berhe, Calantropo, and three prosecutors met with a judge. “If you give false testimony regarding your identity, it is a crime in Italy,” the judge warned.

Berhe testified that he had lived in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Like many other refugees, he had fled the country during his mandatory military service.

“So, what kind of work have you done in your life?” the judge asked.

“I was a carpenter. And I sold milk.”

“You what?”

“I sold milk.”

“Are you married?”

“No,” Berhe said.

“Who did you live with in Asmara?”

“My mom.”

“O.K., Mr. Medhanie,” the judge said. “I’m now going to read you the, um, the crimes—the things you’re accused of doing.”


The judge spent the next several minutes detailing a complex criminal enterprise that spanned eleven countries and three continents, and involved numerous accomplices, thousands of migrants, and millions of euros in illicit profits. She listed several boatloads of people who had passed through Mered’s connection house and arrived in Italy in 2014. Berhe sat in silence as the interpreter whispered rapidly into his ear. After the judge finished listing the crimes, she asked Berhe, “So, what do you have to say about this?”

“I didn’t do it,” he replied. “In 2014, I was in Asmara, so those dates don’t even make sense.”

“And where did you go after you left Asmara?”

“I went to Ethiopia, where I stayed for three months. And then I went to Sudan.” There, Berhe had failed to find a job, so he lived with several other refugees. Berhe and his sister were supported by sporadic donations of three hundred dollars from a brother who lives in the United States. Berhe had spent the past two and a half weeks in isolation, but his testimony matched the accounts of friends and relatives who had spoken to Estefanos and other members of the press.

“Listen, I have to ask you something,” the judge said. “Do you even know Medhanie Yehdego Mered?”

“No,” Berhe replied.

“I don’t have any more questions,” the judge said. “Anyone else?”

“Your honor, whatever the facts he just put forward, in reality he is the right defendant,” Claudio Camilleri, one of the prosecutors, said. “He was delivered to us as Mered,” he insisted, pointing to the extradition forms. “You can read it very clearly: ‘Mered.’ ”

Along with Berhe, the Sudanese government had handed over a cell phone, a small calendar, and some scraps of paper, which it said were the only objects in Berhe’s possession at the time of the arrest. But when the judge asked Berhe if he owned a passport he said yes. “It’s in Sudan,” he said. “They took it. It was in my pocket, but they took it.”

“Excuse me—at the moment of the arrest, you had your identity documents with you?” she asked.

“Yes, I had them. But they took my I.D.”

Berhe told his lawyer that the Sudanese police had beaten him and asked for money. As a jobless refugee, he had nothing to give, so they notified Interpol that they had captured Mered.

The prosecutors also focussed on his mobile phone, which had been tapped shortly before he was arrested. “The contents of these conversations touched on illicit activities of the sort relevant to this dispute,” Camilleri said. At the time, Berhe’s cousin had been migrating through Libya, en route to Europe, and he had called Berhe to help arrange a payment to the connection man. “So, you know people who are part of the organizations that send migrants,” the judge noted. “Why were they calling you, if you are a milkman?”

The interrogation continued in this manner, with the authorities regarding as suspicious everything that they didn’t understand about the lives of refugees who travel the perilous routes that they were trying to disrupt. At one point, Berhe found himself explaining the fundamentals of the hawala system—an untraceable money-transfer network built on trust between distant brokers—to a prosecutor who had spent years investigating smugglers whose business depends on it. When Berhe mentioned that one of his friends in Khartoum worked at a bar, the judge heard barche, the Italian word for boats. “He sells boats?” she asked. “No, no,” Berhe said. “He sells fruit juice.”

The prosecutors also asked Berhe about the names of various suspects in the Glauco investigations. But in most cases they knew only smugglers’ nicknames or first names, many of which are common in Eritrea. Berhe, recognizing some of the names as those of his friends and relatives, began to implicate himself.

“Mera Merhawi?” a prosecutor asked. Mered’s brother is named Merhawi.

“Well, Mera is just short for Merhawi,” Berhe explained.

“O.K., you had a conversation with . . .”

“Yes! Merhawi is in Libya. He left with my cousin Gherry.”

Believing that coöperation was the surest path to exoneration, Berhe provided the password for his e-mail and Facebook accounts; it was “Filmon,” the name of one of his friends in Khartoum. The prosecutors seized on this, remembering that Filmon was the name of the person identified in a wiretap of Mered’s brother Merhawi. The prosecution failed to note that Berhe has twelve Filmons among his Facebook friends; Mered has five Filmons among his.

After the interrogation, the Palermo magistrate ordered a forensic analysis of Berhe’s phone and social-media accounts, to comb the data for inconsistencies. When officers ran everything through the Glauco database, they discovered that one of the scraps of paper submitted by the Sudanese authorities included the phone number of a man named Solomon, who in 2014 had spoken with Mered about hawala payments at least seventy-eight times. They also found that, although Berhe had said that he didn’t know Mered’s wife, Lidya Tesfu, he had once corresponded with her on Facebook. Tesfu told me that she and Berhe had never met. But he had thought that she looked attractive in pictures, and in 2015 he started flirting with her online. She told him that she was married, but he persisted, and so she shut him down, saying, “I don’t need anyone but my husband.” When the prosecutors filed this exchange into evidence, they omitted everything except Tesfu’s final message, creating the opposite impression—that she was married to Berhe and was pining for him.

Like so many others in Khartoum, Berhe had hoped to make it to Europe. His Internet history included a YouTube video of migrants in the Sahara and a search about the conditions in the Mediterranean. The prosecutors treated this as further evidence that he was a smuggler. Worse, in a text message to his sister, he mentioned a man named Ermias; a smuggler of that name had launched the boat that sunk off the coast of Lampedusa.

By the end of the interrogation, it hardly mattered whether the man in custody was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe or Medhanie Yehdego Mered. Berhe was returned to his cell. “The important thing is the evidence, not the identity,” Ferrara told me. “It only matters that you can demonstrate that that evidence led to that person.” The N.C.A. removed from its Web site the announcement of Mered’s arrest. This was the first extradition following a fragile new anti-smuggling partnership between European and East African governments, known as the Khartoum Process. There have been no extraditions since.

Within the Eritrean community, Estefanos told me, “everyone was, like, ‘What a lucky guy—we went through the Sahara and the Mediterranean, and this guy came by private airplane!’ Everybody thought he would be released in days.” Instead, the judge allowed Berhe’s case to proceed to trial. It was as if the only people who were unwilling to accept his innocence were those in control of his fate. Toward the end of the preliminary hearing, one of the prosecutors had asked Berhe if he had ever been to Libya. In the audio recording, he says “No.” But in the official transcript someone wrote “Yes.”

Tondo and Kingsley wrote in the Guardian that the trial “risks becoming a major embarrassment for both Italian and British police.” Tondo told me that, the night after the article’s publication, “I got a lot of calls from friends and family members. They were really worried about the consequences of the story.” Tondo’s livelihood relied largely on his relationship with officials at the magistrate’s office, many of whom frequently gave him confidential documents. “That’s something that began during the Mafia wars, when you could not really trust the lawyers who were defending mobsters,” he said. Tondo was thirty-four, with a wife and a two-year-old son; working as a freelancer for Italian and international publications, he rarely earned more than six hundred euros a month. “I survived through journalism awards,” he said. “So what the fuck am I going to do”—drop the story or follow where it led? “Every journalist in Sicily has asked that sort of question. You’re at the point of jeopardizing your career for finding the truth.”

In Italy, investigative journalists are often wiretapped, followed, and intimidated by the authorities. “The investigative tools that prosecutors use to put pressure on journalists are the same ones that they use to track criminals,” Piero Messina, a Sicilian crime reporter, told me. Two years ago, Messina published a piece, in L’Espresso, alleging that a prominent doctor had made threatening remarks to a public official about the daughter of Paolo Borsellino, one of the anti-Mafia prosecutors who was killed in 1992. Messina was charged with libel, a crime that can carry a prison sentence of six years. According to the Italian press-freedom organization Ossigeno per l’Informazione, in the past five years Italian journalists have faced at least four hundred and thirty-two “specious defamation lawsuits” and an additional thirty-seven “specious lawsuits on the part of magistrates.”

At a court hearing, Messina was presented with transcripts of his private phone calls. “When a journalist discovers that he’s under investigation in this way, he can’t work anymore” without compromising his sources, Messina told me. Police surveillance units sometimes park outside his house and monitor his movements. “They fucked my career,” he said.

Messina’s trial is ongoing, and he is struggling to stay afloat. A few months ago, La Repubblica paid him seven euros for a twelve-hundred-word article on North Korean spies operating in Rome. “The pay is so low that it’s suicide to do investigative work,” he told me. “This is how information in Italy is being killed. You lose the aspiration to do your job. I know a lot of journalists who became chefs.”

Prosecutors have wide latitude to investigate possible crimes, even if nothing has been reported to the police, and they are required to formally register an investigation only when they are ready to press charges. In a recent essay, Michele Caianiello, a criminal-law professor at the University of Bologna, wrote that the capacity to investigate people before any crime is discovered “makes it extremely complicated to check ex post facto if the prosecutor, negligently or maliciously, did not record in the register the name of the possible suspect”—meaning that, in practice, prosecutors can investigate their perceived opponents indefinitely, without telling anyone.

In 2013, the Italian government requested telephone data from Vodafone more than six hundred thousand times. That year, Italian courts ordered almost half a million live interceptions. Although wiretaps are supposed to be approved by a judge, there are ways to circumvent the rules. One method is to include the unofficial target’s phone number in a large pool of numbers—perhaps a set of forty disposable phones that have suspected links to a Mafia boss. “It’s a legitimate investigation, but you throw in the number of someone who shouldn’t be in it,” an Italian police-intelligence official told me. “They do this all the time.”

Tondo continued reporting on the Medhanie trial, embarrassing the prosecutors every few weeks with new stories showing that the wrong man might be in jail. At one of Berhe’s hearings, a man wearing a black jacket and hat followed Tondo around the courthouse, taking pictures of him with a cell phone. Tondo confronted the stranger, pulling out his own phone and photographing him in return, and was startled when the man addressed him by name. After the incident, Tondo drafted a formal complaint, but he was advised by a contact in the military police not to submit it; if he filed a request to know whether he was under investigation, the prosecutors would be notified of his inquiry but would almost certainly not have to respond to it. “In an organized-crime case, you can investigate completely secretly for years,” Ferrara told me. “You never inform them.” A few months later, the man with the black hat took the witness stand; he was an investigative police officer.

Tondo makes a significant portion of his income working as a fixer for international publications. I met him last September, four months after Berhe’s arrest, when I hired him to help me with a story about underage Nigerian girls who are trafficked to Europe for sex work. We went to the Palermo magistrate to collect some documents on Nigerian crime, and entered the office of Maurizio Scalia, the deputy chief prosecutor. “Pardon me, Dr. Scalia,” Tondo said. He began to introduce me, but Scalia remained focussed on him. “You’ve got balls, coming in here,” he said.

This spring, a Times reporter contacted Ferrara for a potential story about migration. Ferrara, who knew that she was working with Tondo on another story, threatened the paper, telling her, “If Lorenzo Tondo gets a byline with you, the New York Times is finished with the Palermo magistrate.” (Ferrara denies saying this.)

One afternoon in Palermo, I had lunch with Francesco Viviano, a sixty-eight-year-old Sicilian investigative reporter who says that he has been wiretapped, searched, or interrogated by the authorities “eighty or ninety times.” After decades of reporting on the ways in which the Mafia influences Sicilian life, Viviano has little patience for anti-Mafia crusaders who exploit the Cosa Nostra’s historic reputation in order to buoy their own. “The Mafia isn’t completely finished, but it has been destroyed,” he said. “It exists at around ten or twenty per cent of its former power. But if you ask the magistrates they say, ‘No, it’s at two hundred per cent,’ ” to frame the public perception of their work as heroic. He listed several public figures whose anti-Mafia stances disguised privately unscrupulous behavior. “They think they’re Falcone and Borsellino,” he said. In recent decades, Palermo’s anti-Mafia division has served as a pipeline to positions in Italian and European politics.

In December, 2014, Sergio Lari, a magistrate from the Sicilian hill town of Caltanissetta, who had worked with Falcone and Borsellino and solved Borsellino’s murder, was nominated for the position of chief prosecutor in Palermo. But Francesco Lo Voi, a less experienced candidate, was named to the office.

The following year, Lari began investigating a used-car dealership in southern Sicily. He discovered that its vehicles were coming from a dealership in Palermo that had been seized by the state for having links to the Mafia. Lari informed Lo Voi’s office, which started wiretapping the relevant suspects and learned that the scheme led back to a judge working inside the Palermo magistrate: Silvana Saguto, the head of the office for seized Mafia assets.

“Judge Saguto was considered the Falcone for Mafia seizures,” Lari told me. “She was in all the papers. She stood out as a kind of heroine.” Lari’s team started wiretapping Saguto’s line. Saguto was tipped off, and she and her associates stopped talking on the phone. “At this point, I had to make a really painful decision,” Lari said. “I had to send in my guys in disguise, in the middle of the night, into the Palermo Palace of Justice, to bug the offices of magistrates. This was something that had never been done in Italy.” Lari and his team uncovered a vast corruption scheme, which resulted in at least twenty indictments. Among the suspects are five judges, an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and an officer in Italy’s Investigative Anti-Mafia Directorate. Saguto was charged with seizing businesses under dubious circumstances, appointing relatives to serve as administrators, and pocketing the businesses’ earnings or distributing them among colleagues, family, and friends. In one instance, according to Lari’s twelve-hundred-page indictment, Saguto used stolen Mafia assets to pay off her son’s professor to give him passing grades. (Saguto has denied all accusations; her lawyers have said that she has “never taken a euro.”)

Lari refused to talk to me about other prosecutors in the Palermo magistrate’s office, but the police-intelligence official told me that “at least half of them can’t say they didn’t know” about the scheme. Lari said that Saguto was running “an anti-Mafia mafia” out of her office at the Palace of Justice.

Except for Lari, every prosecutor who worked with Falcone and Borsellino has either retired or died. The Saguto investigation made Lari “many enemies” in Sicilian judicial and political circles, he said. “Before, the mafiosi hated me. Now it’s the anti-mafiosi. One day, you’ll find me dead in the street, and no one will tell you who did it.”

The investigations of the Palermo magistrate didn’t prevent its prosecutors from interfering with Calantropo’s preparations for Berhe’s defense. A week after the preliminary hearing, he applied for permission from a local prefecture to conduct interviews inside a migrant-reception center in the town of Siculiana, near Agrigento, where he hoped to find Eritreans who would testify that Berhe wasn’t Mered. Days later, Ferrara, Scalia, and Camilleri wrote a letter to the prefecture, instructing its officers to report back on whom Calantropo talked to. Calantropo, after hearing that the Eritreans had been moved to another camp, decided not to go.

“It’s not legal for them to monitor the defense lawyer,” Calantropo said. “But if you observe his witnesses then you observe the lawyer.” Calantropo is calm and patient, but, like many Sicilians, he has become so cynical about institutional corruption and dubious judicial practices that he is sometimes inclined to read conspiracy into what may be coincidence. “I can’t be sure that they are investigating me,” he told me, raising an eyebrow and tilting his head in a cartoonish performance of skepticism. “But, I have to tell you, they’re not exactly leaving me alone to do my job.”

Last summer, Meron Estefanos brought Yonas and another Eritrean refugee, named Ambes, from Sweden to Palermo. Both men had lived in Mered’s connection house in Tripoli in 2013. After they gave witness statements to Calantropo, saying that they had been smuggled by Mered and had never seen the man who was on trial, Tondo contacted Scalia and Ferrara. “I was begging them to meet our sources,” Tondo recalled. “But they told us, ‘We already got Mered. He’s in jail.’ ” (Estefanos, Calantropo, Yonas, and Ambes remember Tondo’s calls; Ferrara says that they didn’t happen.)

Although Mered is reputed to have sent more than thirteen thousand Eritreans to Italy, the prosecutors seem to have made no real effort to speak with any of his clients. The Glauco investigations and prosecutions were carried out almost entirely by wiretapping calls, which allowed officials to build a web of remote contacts but provided almost no context or details about the suspects’ lives—especially the face-to-face transactions that largely make up the smuggling business. As a result, Ali, Mered’s Libyan boss, is hardly mentioned in the Glauco documents. When asked about him, Ferrara said that he didn’t know who he was. Ambes showed me a photograph that he had taken of Ali on his phone.

After Yonas and Ambes returned to Sweden, the Palermo magistrate asked police to look into them. E.U. law requires that asylum claims be processed in the first country of entry, but after disembarking in Sicily both men had continued north, to Sweden, before giving their fingerprints and their names to the authorities. Investigating them had the effect of scaring off other Eritreans who might have come forward. “I don’t believe that they are out there to get the truth,” Estefanos said, of the Italian prosecutors. “They would rather prosecute an innocent person than admit that they were wrong.”

Calantropo submitted into evidence Berhe’s baptism certificate, which he received from his family; photos of Berhe as a child; Berhe’s secondary-school report card; Berhe’s exam registration in seven subjects, with an attached photograph; and a scan of Berhe’s government-issued I.D. card. Berhe’s family members also submitted documents verifying their own identities.

Other documents established Berhe’s whereabouts. His graduation bulletin shows that in 2010, while Mered was smuggling migrants through Sinai, he was completing his studies at a vocational school in Eritrea. An official form from the Ministry of Health says that in early 2013—while Mered was known to be in Libya—Berhe was treated for an injury he sustained in a “machine accident,” while working as a carpenter. The owner of Thomas Gezae Dairy Farming, in Asmara, wrote a letter attesting that, from May, 2013, until November, 2014—when Mered was running the connection house in Tripoli—Berhe was a manager of sales and distribution. Gezae wrote, “Our company wishes him good luck in his future endeavors.”

Last fall, one of Berhe’s sisters travelled to the prison from Norway, where she has asylum, to visit him and introduce him to her newborn son. But she was denied entry. Only family members can visit inmates, and although her last name is also Berhe, the prison had him registered as Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

Last December, the government of Eritrea sent a letter to Calantropo, confirming that the man in custody was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. “It’s very strange that the European police never asked the Eritrean government for the identity card of Medhanie Yehdego Mered,” Calantropo said. (Ferrara said that Italy did not have a legal-assistance treaty with Eritrea.) When I asked Calantropo why he didn’t do that himself, he replied, “I represent Berhe. I can only ask on behalf of my client.”

The prosecution has not produced a single witness who claims that Berhe is Mered. Instead, Ferrara has tried to prove that Mered uses numerous aliases, one of which may be Berhe.

A few years ago, Ferrara turned a low-level Eritrean smuggler named Nuredine Atta into a state witness. After he agreed to testify, “we put him under protection, exactly like Mafia cases,” and reduced his sentence by half, Ferrara said. Long before Berhe’s arrest, Atta was shown the photograph of Medhanie Yehdego Mered wearing a cross. He said that he recalled seeing the man on a beach in Sicily in 2014, and that someone had told him that the man’s name was Habtega Ashgedom. In court, he couldn’t keep his story straight. In a separate smuggling investigation, prosecutors in Rome discounted Atta’s testimony about Mered as unreliable.

After the extradition, Atta was shown a photo of Berhe. “I don’t recognize him,” he said. Later, on the witness stand, he testified that he was pretty sure he’d seen a photo of Berhe at a wedding in Khartoum, in 2013—contradicting Berhe’s claim that he had been selling milk in Asmara at the time. Berhe’s family, however, produced a marriage certificate and photographs, proving that the wedding had been in 2015, in keeping with the time line that Berhe had laid out. In court, Ferrara treated the fact that Atta didn’t know Mered or Berhe as a reason to believe that they might be the same person.

Ferrara is also trying to link Berhe’s voice to wiretaps of Mered. The prosecution had Berhe read phrases transcribed from Mered’s calls, which they asked a forensic technician named Marco Zonaro to compare with the voice from the calls. Zonaro used software called Nuance Forensics 9.2. But, because it didn’t have settings for Tigrinya, he carried out the analysis with Egyptian Arabic, which uses a different alphabet and sounds nothing like Tigrinya. Zonaro wrote that Egyptian Arabic was “the closest geographical reference population” to Eritrea. The tests showed wildly inconsistent results. Zonaro missed several consecutive hearings; when he showed up, earlier this month, Ferrara pleaded with the judge to refer the case to a different court, meaning that Zonaro didn’t end up testifying, and that the trial will begin from scratch in September.

Many of the wiretapped phone calls that were submitted into evidence raise questions about the limits of Italian jurisdiction. According to Gioacchino Genchi, one of Italy’s foremost experts on intercepted calls and data traffic, the technological options available to prosecutors far exceed the legal ones. When both callers are foreign and not on Italian soil, and they aren’t plotting crimes against Italy, the contents of the calls should not be used in court. “But in trafficking cases there are contradictory verdicts,” he said. “Most of the time, the defense lawyers don’t know how to handle it.” Genchi compared prosecutorial abuses of international wiretaps to fishing techniques. “When you use a trawling net, you catch everything,” including protected species, he said. “But, if the fish ends up in your net, you take it, you refrigerate it, and you eat it.”

On May 16th, having found the number and the address of Lidya Tesfu, Mered’s wife, in Italian court documents, I met her at a café in Sweden. She told me that she doesn’t know where her husband is, but he calls her once a month, from a blocked number. “He follows the case,” she said. “I keep telling him we have to stop this: ‘You have to contact the Italians.’ ” I asked Tesfu to urge her husband to speak with me. Earlier this month, he called.
In the course of three hours, speaking through an interpreter, Mered detailed his activities, his business woes, and—with some careful omissions—his whereabouts during the past seven years. His version of events fits with what I learned about him from his former clients, from his wife, and from what was both present in and curiously missing from the Italian court documents—though he quibbled over details that hurt his pride (that Ali had slapped him) or could potentially hurt him legally (that he was ever armed).

Mered told me that in December, 2015, he was jailed under a different name for using a forged Eritrean passport. He wouldn’t specify what country he was in, but his brother’s wiretapped call—the one that referred to Mered’s pending return from Dubai—suggests that he was probably caught in the United Arab Emirates. Six months later, when Berhe was arrested in Khartoum, Mered learned of his own supposed extradition to Italy from rumors circulating in prison. In August, 2016, one of Mered’s associates managed to spring him from jail, by presenting the authorities in that country with another fake passport, showing a different nationality—most likely Ugandan—and arranging Mered’s repatriation to his supposed country of origin. His time in prison explains why the Italian wiretaps on his Sudanese number picked up nothing in the months before Berhe was arrested; it also explains why, when the Italians asked Facebook to turn over Mered’s log-in data, there was a gap during that period.

To the Italians, Mered was only ever a trophy. Across Africa and the Middle East, the demand for smugglers is greater than ever, as tens of millions of people flee war, starvation, and oppression. For people living in transit countries—the drivers, the fixers, the translators, the guards, the shopkeepers, the hawala brokers, the bookkeepers, the police officers, the checkpoint runners, the bandits—business has never been more profitable. Last year, with Mered out of the trade, a hundred and eighty thousand refugees and migrants reached Italy by sea, almost all of them leaving from the beaches near Tripoli. This year, the number of arrivals is expected to surpass two hundred thousand.

In our call, Mered expressed astonishment at how poorly the Italians understood the forces driving his enterprise. There is no code of honor among smugglers, no Mafia-like hierarchy to disrupt—only money, movement, risk, and death. “One day, if I get caught, the truth will come out,” he said. “These European governments—their technology is so good, but they know nothing.”

Thirteen months after the extradition, Berhe is still on trial. At a hearing in May, he sat behind a glass cage, clutching a small plastic crucifix. Three judges sat at the bench, murmuring to one another from behind a stack of papers that mostly obscured their faces. Apart from Tondo, the only Italian journalists in the room were a reporter and an editor from MeridioNews, a small, independent Sicilian Web site; major Italian outlets have largely ignored the trial or written credulously about the prosecution’s claims.

A judicial official asked, for the record, whether the defendant Medhanie Yehdego Mered was present. Calantropo noted that, in fact, he was not, but it was easier to move forward if everyone pretended that he was. The prosecution’s witness, a police officer involved in the extradition, didn’t show up, and for the next hour nothing happened. The lawyers checked Facebook on their phones. Finally, the session was adjourned. Berhe, who had waited a month for the hearing, was led away in tears. 


Eritreans pursue two-wheeled dreams in exile

Saturday, 22 July 2017 16:26 Written by

By Afp

Mehari Haile, a member of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team, based in Addis Ababa

After representing Eritrea in cycling tournaments across Africa, Daniel Teklay took a journey of a different sort last year when he escaped across his country's militarised border to a new life as a refugee.

A year later Teklay is back on his bike, only now he competes in Eritrea's neighbour and bitter rival Ethiopia, where he is the top performer on a team of Eritrean refugees who have posted impressive results at events, but are struggling to find the money and permission to compete.

"I decided to leave Eritrea and I don't want to go back because I have a dream to pursue," Teklay told AFP as the team paused during a morning ride on the outskirts of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.

With a cycling tradition inherited from its decades as an Italian colony, Eritrea on Africa's horn has produced talents such as Tour de France riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane.

Members of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team ride on the outskirts of Addis Ababa

But hundreds of thousands of other Eritreans -- including many aspiring athletes -- have chosen to abandon the country for lives as refugees because of what they say are the country's repressive policies.

The 10 men of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team are among a lucky few that are able to pursue their passion even from exile.

"With my skills, I can do the best I can here in Ethiopia," Teklay said.

- Arch-nemesis -

Ethiopia is one of Africa's main hosts of refugees, the majority of whom are running from wars and droughts in countries such as Somalia and South Sudan.

Eritrea is more than just another one of Ethiopia's troubled neighbours: it's a former territory that voted to leave in 1993, then became Addis Ababa's arch-nemesis after the two countries went to war between 1998 and 2000.

Since then, the feuding countries have taken starkly different paths.

Muse Geirmay, a member of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team, based in Addis Ababa

Ethiopia's economy has grown in recent years along with its regional clout, while Eritrea has periodically skirmished with its neighbours and been sanctioned by the UN Security Council for supporting Islamic extremists.

Many of the more than 160,000 Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, including some of the refugee cyclists, are young people who escaped the country's national service scheme.

While the government says the programme is a way for Eritrean youth to serve their country, the national service has been likened to slavery by the UN because people end up trapped for years in jobs with terrible pay and no way to leave.

After watching other racers abandon their bicycles when they entered national service, Filimon Gebrezabihr left for Ethiopia, convinced that fleeing was the only way he could pursue a cycling career.

"From that, I learned it was impossible to achieve their dream," Gebrezabihr, who races for the refugee team, said of the cyclists he once competed against in Eritrean events. "So, I left."

- Back on the bike -

The cyclists, some of whom knew each other from the cycling scene in Eritrea, regrouped in 2015 in Addis Ababa after a coach based in the capital heard they were living in camps in Ethiopia's north.

Eritrea's Natnael Berhane competes in the 2016 Tour de France

Using bikes provided by relatives in Europe or by their team manager, they're now one of the top-ranked teams in the capital's cycling scene, with Teklay, a former member of Eritrea's national team, winning several races outright.

Their success has caused other Addis Ababa-based cycling teams to step up their game, said Makonnen Gebretinsae, a long-time Ethiopian race organiser and referee.

"The Eritrean team started to perform very well, which motivated the other Addis Ababa teams," he said.

The Eritreans have pulled this off despite numerous roadblocks that have come between them and competing.

No matter how good they are, as Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, they can't race for either country's national squads, and when an invitation to compete in Israel came recently, they had to skip it because they lacked travel documents, team manager Ben Jemaneh said.

- Uncertain future -

The racers scrape by on support from family members in the diaspora and the assistance of Ben, a businessman in the capital who has spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money importing bikes and spare parts that aren't available in Ethiopia.

"When I see them, they're refugees, there's no one to help them," said Ben, who drives the athletes to races in an old Nissan outfitted with homemade bike racks.

"Since that day, I'm always at their backs."

On the horizon for the team is August's Tour Meles Zenawi for Green Development, the only race in Ethiopia sanctioned by the International Cycling Union.

But Ben says they're not sure they have the money to travel to the northern city of Mekele to compete, and even if they did, they still don't know if Ethiopia's cycling federation will allow them to enter.

Though their future is uncertain, the team says cycling is a welcome distraction from a life of displacement.

"As a refugee, sometimes there is nothing to do but think," rider Michael Nuguse said.

"My aim is to achieve at the high level."



by Martin Plaut

Want to understand why the international community (and not just the West!) tears its hair out about dealing with Eritrea? Just read on.


Somalia-Eritrea Sanctions Committee Consultations

Source: What's in Blue

On Monday (24 July), the Chair of the 751/1907 Somalia and Eritrea Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Kairat Umarov (Kazakhstan), will deliver his 120-day briefing to Council members in consultations, covering the period from April to July 2017.

The Chair is expected to update Council members on any notifications and exemption requests concerning the arms embargoes on Somalia and Eritrea. The briefing will touch on the 21 April midterm update of the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG). In this update, the Group reported that Al-Shabaab remains the most significant threat to peace and security, while an ISIL-affiliated extremist group is increasing in size. The resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia, as well as the charcoal ban, is also likely to be addressed.

On Eritrea, Umarov will probably update Council members on developments pertaining to allegations made last year by Djibouti and another member state of weapons transfers from Eritrea to Al-Shabaab. It appears that these countries have not yet provided the SEMG with evidence to substantiate their claims. The Monitoring Group has reported that Eritrea continues to support other opposition groups in the region.

The Chair may also address the Djibouti-Eritrea conflict. In recent years, the Security Council has asserted in sanctions resolutions on Somalia-Eritrea that the Djibouti-Eritrea conflict constitutes a threat to international peace and security. In addition to reiterating this assertion, the most recent resolution on Somalia-Eritrea sanctions (resolution 2317 of 10 November 2016) encouraged further mediation efforts by Qatar in order to resolve the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea and the issue of Djiboutian combatants missing in action since the clashes in 2008, The resolution urged Eritrea to share, including with the SEMG, any available detailed information pertaining to the combatants.

The Djibouti-Eritrea dispute has become of increasing concern, following Qatar’s 14 June announcement that it would no longer mediate between the parties and its withdrawal of peacekeeping forces from the border areas. On 16 June, Djibouti accused Eritrea of occupying disputed territory along their mutual border. The AU Commission subsequently announced that it was available to Djibouti and Eritrea to help “normalise their relations and promote good neighbourliness”, and that the Commission, in consultation with the parties, would deploy a fact-finding mission on the border. Ambassador Smail Chergui, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, had been scheduled to travel to Asmara to discuss developments in the region with Eritrean authorities; however, at the request of the Eritrean authorities and due to scheduling conflicts, that visit was postponed, and new dates are to be agreed upon in consultation with the Eritrean government. The SEMG has also requested access to the border area, but has only gained clearance from the Djiboutian side.

The level of engagement with the Eritrean government may also be raised. Following months of attempts to arrange a Chair’s visit to the region that would include a stop in Asmara, it appears that the Eritrean government agreed to have the Chair visit later this month, during a regional mission that would also include stops in Addis Ababa, Djibouti City and Mogadishu. However, after agreement was reached on the itinerary, Eritrea informed the Chair that the proposed dates for the visit to Asmara were not workable, and the visit to the region has been postponed.

This postponement followed considerable discussion in the sanctions committee and with Eritrea, regarding whether the Chair should visit Asmara alone or be accompanied by the Sanctions Coordinator in the Secretariat. The Committee ultimately agreed, prior to the postponement of the visit, that the Chair could travel to Eritrea unaccompanied by the Sanctions Coordinator.

The Council began discussions in April on a review of the sanctions measures on Eritrea, in line with its intentions outlined in resolution 2317 of 10 November 2016. The UK, as penholder, convened Council members twice to take stock of the positions of all members regarding a potential presidential statement that would establish a road map on the way forward on Eritrea sanctions. However, these discussions were put on hold following recent developments between Djibouti and Eritrea, which have underscored the complexities of regional political dynamics


20 Jul 2017 - 7:11pm

Said Abdella (sometimes spelled as Saeed or Seid) is one of many Eritrean artists who've been sent to Australia by the Eritrean government with the objective of disseminating their propaganda. Now he has defected. As he seeks asylum, he is now speaking out against the government that previously controlled everything he said.

By Beyene Weldegiorgis
20 Jul 2017 - 6:51 PM  UPDATED 4 HOURS AGO

"If there was a democracy with real eyes, even if starved, I wouldn’t flee my home country," singer Said Abdella tells SBS Tigrinya. 

Abdella is an Eritrean singer and performer who recently defected from the Eritrean government, for whom he used to perform, to seek asylum here in Australia.

Out of 180 countries ranked in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Eritrea came in at 179, behind Syria and ahead of only North Korea. For the past 26 years, the report states, "Eritrea has been a dictatorship in which there is no room for freely reported news and information." 

"Like everything else in Eritrea, the media are totally subject to the whim of President Issayas Afeworki, a predator of press freedom who is responsible for 'crimes against humanity.'"

Like most Eritrean citizens, singer Said Abdella served the government for more than 40 years, first as a freedom fighter for 16 years and then, since the independence of Eritrea in 1991, he has been under full government control, not yet demobilized.

“Until I deserted in 2017, I have been under the PFDJ [People’s Front for Democracy and Justice - the only party in Eritrea] control," says Abdella. "When they ordered me to wake up I do wake up, when they ordered me to sleep, I sleep."

 Said Abdela

Said Abdela performs on Eritrean TV - controlled by the government's Ministry

Said applied four times for his release from government control and each time he had his application rejected. He even approached the secretary of the ruling party.

“I told him that I want to be released and raise my children freely but he refused,” says Abdella.

 Said Abdela

Eritrean singer Said Abdela pictured in Australia at SBS Radio in 2017

Said Abdella’s asylum application is still under process by Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Even if he is far from his home country, he always worries about the safety of his wife, four daughters and two sons.

“The family of my wife live in Ethiopia, I am here in Australia," says Abdella.

"I have daughters of 17 and 19 years of age.

"Because of me the authorities back home can harm or harass them.”

Abdella describes a recent alleged incident, “my daughter was ready to sing during the May 24 Eritrean Independence Day, when they found out that she was the daughter of Said Abdella they refused to let her sing.”

Abdella’s case is not an isolated story. Many Eritrean artists and national football players have deserted the government whenever they get the opportunity to leave Eritrea for a mission.

Here in Australia, for the past 15 years, famous Eritrean musicians such as Muktar Saleh, Abdel Hakim Arey; singers such as Alex Kahsay, Aklilu Mebrahtu and now Said Abdella are examples of those who have been sent to Australia by the Eritrean government with the objective of disseminating the government’s propaganda by performing for the Eritrean community.

Instead they deserted the government and were granted asylum in Australia.

“If an artist cannot do his artistic work freely, that means life for that artist has stopped.”

In a similar story to Said Abdella's, Michael Adonai is a well-known Eritrean painter, having had his work was staged in many international galleries and exhibitions.

In 2012, UNESCO invited top artists from 30 different countries to represent their countries and exhibit their work in Andorra. Michael was selected to represent Eritrea. But he deserted Eritrea and sought asylum in Australia in 2013.

 Michael Adonai

Eritrean artist Michael Adonai pictured in his studio

in June 2014, SBS Tigrinya spoke to Michael as he was holding an exhibition called 'I didn’t choose to be a refugee’ in Melbourne. Explaining why he deserted the government he served for more than 40 years he replied, “If an artist cannot do his artistic work freely, that means life for that artist has stopped."

Said Abdella echoed this and says artists like him have no freedom of expression in Eritrea.

In 1998, when Eritrea was engaged in a border war with Ethiopia, he wrote a song which blamed the government for the war.

The song was not literally blaming the government directly but metaphorically - using the symbol of time. Lyrics (in Tigrinya) included: "what have we done time? Please leave us time and let’s live a life without war. For that he had to pay a price."

"I wrote a song called 'Time' and they interpreted it differently," explains Abdela. "After it was aired on TV for two days they banned it and they detained me."

“If I teach the youth, through my songs, to behave, to get away from drugs, murder and lies, that is all that I can do to express my gratitude to the Government of Australia.”

Said Abdella has already given two musical performances in Melbourne and one in Brisbane and the community here cheered and welcomed him.

Eritrean Festival poster

A poster advertises the performance of Said and his band in Eritrean Festival Melbourne earlier this year

Once he is granted residence here in Australia, he has a plan to educate Eritrean descendants through his songs to have discipline and inherit the good culture of old generations.

“If I teach the youth, through my songs, to behave, to get away from drugs, murder and lies, that is all that I can do to express my gratitude to the Government of Australia.”


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by Martin Plaut

This information has been received from Abri Harnet (Freedom Friday) members living in Asmar - clarifying the situation with regard to Abune Antonios. It supplements the news carried on Tuesday.


The ‘reconciliation process’ that was said to have culminated in last Sunday's service has been going on for the last six months. During this period members of the Patriarchate and the clergy from various parishes and some monks  (including  a certain Father Bereket from the parish of Adi Keyih) have been engaged in a reconciliation effort between those who supported Abune Antonios and those that backed the regime's critique of the Patriarch. Those  working for reconciliation had in fact produced a statement that was distributed widely, including on the internet.

However, according to people close to the process, the effort had also been tainted by the ongoing conspiracy to install a Patriarch who would submit himself to the needs and wishes of PFDJ, and the dictator at its helm.

The Patriarch had, during his deposition in 2007, excommunicated Abune Lucas, the priest who has been unofficially leading the Church in recent years, and several other senior clergy.  This effectively means if the Abune Antonios dies without lifting the excommunication, Abune Lucas can never officially take his position, under canonical law. The ‘reconciliation’ effort is thus believed, by many, as a means of putting pressure on Abune Antonios to lift the excommunication, and to prepare the grounds for the inauguration of Abune Lucas.

When the excommunication was pronounced Abune Antonios had officiated at the pronouncement, in accordance to church law and had communicated this to Alexandria. He had asked for the entire matter to be  communicated to the public as well. This request was rejected; instead the Patriarch was deposed and put under arrest.

Many years elapsed and following various attempts to get around the issue, it is reported that the Patriarch was told that the event of last Sunday would include a public apology from those member of the clergy who had sided with the government, as the culmination of the reconciliation effort.

However, no such apology was made. Instead the same letter that has been in circulation for many months was read out (by Father Bereket) with no additional provisions. At the same time the Patriarch’s request to address the congregation was rejected, as was his request to pray for the congregation that had gathered at the church.

Following this the priests strongly ordered people to leave the compound. When people were reluctant to go, plain clothed security officers, who had been in the crowd throughout the mass, started pushing people out of the compound and the Patriarch was returned to his place of incarceration.

The Abune is said not to be an outspoken man and he kept things to himself. But he is grieving that the church is so divided, and is not well.  Those close to him think that at this moment he would do almost anything to save his church.

We believe this is not the end of the matter and the situation is ongoing. We therefore ask every Eritrean to keep themselves informed about the situation and actively engaged in this matter.

Project Arbi Harnet

Martin Plaut | 19/07/2017 at 6:18 pm | Tags: Abune Antonios, Eritrea, Orthodox Church, PFDJ | Categories: Africa, Eritrea, Horn of Africa | URL:

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by Martin Plaut

Three hours of shelling are reported to have taken place across the Eritrea-Ethiopian border today (Wednesday).

The clash was apparently sparked off when Eritrean troops opened fire on about 40 refugees attempting to flee from Eritrea to Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian military retaliated, sparking off the fighting in the area of Erob, which is near the disputed town of Badme, over which the border war of 1998 - 2000 was fought. There are no reports yet of casualties.

Eritrean flee across the border into Ethiopia at a similar rate on an almost daily basis.


Radio Erena: a beacon of hope for Eritrea

Sunday, 16 July 2017 16:14 Written by


The Observer
Radio Erena: a beacon of hope for Eritrea
Dissent is brutally crushed in Eritrea’s militarised one-party state. But Radio Erena, broadcast from Paris by refugees, has become a symbolic lifeline to those back home who dare to listen

Biniam Simon (left), a former Eritrean state TV journalist, and Fathi Osman, a former diplomat, broadcast Radio Erena from two small rooms in a Paris backstreet: ‘You can’t imagine how important it is. It’s the only thing that gives anyone any hope,’ new arrivals from Eritrea tell them. Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer 

Rachel Cooke
Sunday 16 July 2017 09.00 BST
Last modified on Sunday 16 July 2017 10.27 BST

Ten years ago, Biniam Simon, a journalist at Eri-TV, Eritrea’s state television channel, was informed by his government overlords that he would, after all, be allowed to travel to Japan to attend a seminar on video production. This, to put it mildly, was surprising. Those who leave Eritrea, a single party state with one of the worst human rights records in the world, usually do so only by clandestine and extremely risky means. But if Simon was astonished, he was also realistic. “They only allowed me to go because they thought there was no way to escape from Japan,” he says. “Japan had agreed I would be returned to Eritrea.” Knowing this, he didn’t allow himself even to toy with the idea of defection. He made no plans. He dreamed no dreams. He hoped only to enjoy a few peaceful days outside the prison of his homeland.
Once he was in Japan, however, everything changed. “Something happened, in my section of Eri-TV,” he says. “A lot of people went to prison. Passwords and email addresses were asked for. Someone tipped me off, and I decided not to go back.” This wasn’t an easy decision. The parents and siblings he was leaving behind would, he knew, pay the price in the form of harassment, or worse, on the part of the government. But no sooner had he taken it than he understood its inevitability.

“At some point, you have to make it,” he says. “[In my job], I was reporting for the president’s office – the meetings of cabinet ministers, and so on – and the more high-profile you become in Eritrea, the more danger you’re in. Make even a technical mistake, and you will be punished. One way or another, I knew I would end up in prison eventually.” In Eritrea’s prisons, makeshift and overcrowded, detention periods are arbitrary; torture and judicial executions come pretty much as standard.

Japan duly refused Simon asylum. But with the help of the French NGO Reporters Without Borders, he made it to Paris, where he has lived ever since. His new life was difficult at first. He knew no one, and spoke not a word of French. He worried constantly about his family who, as predicted, were soon called to explain themselves to the administration. But he also had a plan, and this kept him going. He wanted to set up a radio station, one that would broadcast not only to the sizable Eritrean diaspora in Europe – some 5,000 people leave the country illegally every month – but also, more daringly, to the population of Eritrea itself.

Eritrean refugees arrive in Sicily last November after being rescued from a smugglers’ boat off the coast of LibyaEritrean refugees arrive in Sicily last November after being rescued from a smugglers’ boat off the coast of Libya. Photograph: Carolyn Cole/LA Times via Getty Images

“I started thinking about it immediately. You have to understand: Eritrea is completely closed. No information is available there at all, about the outside world or what is going on internally. So if you’re an Eritrean journalist, and you make it to a place where so much information is available, the first thing you think is: why not tell people all this? It was the obvious thing to do.”

Simon, who has the slightly distracted air of the true workaholic, took his idea to Reporters Without Borders, and with its support and some funding, he started trying to recruit his first collaborators, a process that was challenging even in Europe, where he began: of the 60 Eritrean journalists who had made it to the continent, most remained too afraid of the government and too worried for their families to work with him at first.

They also struggled to understand the idea of independent journalism: “They thought that you either worked for the government, doing its propaganda, or that you worked for the opposition. They didn’t understand that we just wanted to give people the information, and what they would do with it afterwards would be up to them.”
Still, their reluctance was as nothing compared to the difficulties involved in getting stories out of a country that for almost a decade has sat in bottom place in the Index of World Press Freedom (now only North Korea ranks lower). How would it be done? In the capital, Asmara, the government’s network of informants is so extensive, many people are unwilling to talk politics even with members of their own family.

In the end, most of the diaspora journalists agreed either to use pseudonyms, or to have their stories recorded by someone else. Meanwhile, Simon slowly built up a network of contacts inside Eritrea. Eight years on, and the majority of Radio Erena’s sources in the country are, he says, ordinary people who report with their eyes and ears, sending out tiny but invaluable bits of information almost every day; the remainder work inside government ministries, or, more rarely, on the ground as journalists. In order to protect them, he and his colleagues in Paris – there are now five staff – never share the names of their contacts with one other, and they each use a different system to communicate with their sources: Simon, for instance, uses code to talk to his.

“I don’t know my colleagues’ sources, and they don’t know mine,” he says. This system also helps with the verification of stories: “A colleague can ask his source if he can confirm something my source has heard, and because they don’t know each other, we have a clearer idea of whether it’s likely to be true.” Stories must have three separate sources, no matter how long this might take: “Information can be 10 days old, depending on the electricity supply in Eritrea and the availability of internet. But it is better to wait, and be 100% sure that what you are broadcasting is correct, than to put out rumours. Because if you make a mistake, you may have fallen into a propaganda trap laid by the government.”

The station broadcasts a two-hour programme in Arabic and Tigrinya seven days a week, repeating it several times a day, giving listeners inside Eritrea multiple opportunities to listen (they may do so, in the privacy of their own homes with the shutters closed and the sound turned down, only when electricity is available – which it often isn’t). As well as news about what the regime may be up to, it provides a detailed picture of what is happening to the refugees who are travelling to Europe – when a boat carrying 360 Eritreans capsized off Lampedusa in 2013, a correspondent was immediately dispatched to Italy – as well as features about diaspora success stories, footballers and athletes among them.

It runs smoothly. There is always a lot to tell. Making sure it can be picked up in Eritrea, however, remains a constant struggle. In 2012, the government managed to block it – seemingly unbothered by the fact that in doing so, it also blocked its own television channel (both broadcast on one satellite frequency). It has also successfully jammed it on shortwave, and on at least one occasion has hacked into the Radio Erena website, destroying it completely. “It’s a nonstop challenge,” he says. “We’re constantly fighting them, and it’s getting harder and harder because they are now employing new experts from China and Indonesia.”

But if this is exhausting, it’s also hugely encouraging: “It means that what we’re doing is working. We know this because the government wants us to stop.” In the early days of Radio Erena, there were reports of listeners being sent to prison. The state made an example of people, to discourage others. Now, though, it seems to have accepted that if it wants to close Erena down, it needs to attack the station itself rather than its listeners. Quite simply, they have become too numerous. For obvious reasons, no official listening figures for Radio Erena are available. But when Simon and his colleagues ask new arrivals in Europe how many people back at home are tuning in, the reply is always the same. “You can’t imagine how important it is,” they’ll tell him. “It’s the only thing that gives anyone any hope.”

Biniam Simon, Radio ErenaBiniam Simon: ‘It’s a non-stop challenge.’ Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer

Radio Erena broadcasts from two small rooms on a sleepy Paris backstreet – downstairs is the office; upstairs is the studio, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom – the walls of which are decorated with old, sun-drenched posters that advertise, in happier times, the country’s delights for tourists. “Massawa: Pearl of the Red Sea” says one. Another shows off gleaming Asmara, whose well preserved modernist Italian architecture, built after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, won the city its listing as a Unesco world heritage site earlier this month. Ask Simon and the others what Eritrea is like, and it’s to these images that they instinctively turn.

“Oh, it’s lovely,” says Fathi Osman, another Erena journalist. “Asmara is more than 2,000 metres above sea level, and the climate is temperate all year round.” He stretches an open palm in the direction of the relevant poster, a gesture that is at once both sweetly proud (come visit!) and unbearably sad (but you never will, and nor can I, for the time being).

Yes, but what’s it really like? They struggle to find the words. “I cannot explain it,” says Simon. “It’s a zombie place. You wake up, you go to the job to which you have been assigned, and then you go back home, and repeat. You cannot lead the life you want to. There are no breaks, no vacations, no social life. It’s really boring. Boredom and fear: a bad combination.”

The mostly young people who slip over the border into Ethiopia or Sudan are risking everything: from there, assuming they avoid being shot by border guards, they will either make the long and arduous journey overland to Libya, from where they hope to reach Europe by sea, or they will travel across the lawless Sinai desert to Israel, where more than 30,000 Eritreans currently reside. But still they do it. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2014/2015 Eritreans represented the largest number of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean.
“They will say: at least you know when you are dead,” says Osman. “They think even that must be better than life in Eritrea, which is a kind of half-life, a living death.”

Like Simon, Osman, a former diplomat, first left Eritrea with official dispensation, having been posted to Saudi Arabia. His situation, however, was more complicated. His wife and children remained in Asmara: the Eritrean government, primed for defections, requires all diplomatic families to stay at home, seeing them as a kind of emotional collateral. But then his son fell seriously ill. Could his wife now join him in Saudi, so the child could be treated in hospital there? (In Eritrea, there is a severe shortage of doctors.) At first, permission was refused. Then it was given, but only for his wife and the sick boy. When he told the authorities the other children could not be left alone, he did so without any expectation that they would change their mind. To his amazement, though, they did. “My son’s illness was a blessing in disguise,” he says, quietly. This was his moment. In 2012, he left for France, leaving his family in hiding in Saudi Arabia. It was two years before he saw them again, their papers having finally been arranged.

Osman, a gentle-seeming, slow-moving man with a serious coffee habit, is the author of From the Dream of Liberation to the Nightmare of Dictatorship, a book (written in Arabic) in which he attempts to trace the roots of Eritrea’s descent into totalitarianism. “I wanted to answer the question: how did all our hope and inspiration end up here?” he says.

In his mind, Eritrea’s liberation from Ethiopia, the country from which it finally won independence in 1993, and its subsequent authoritarianism are inextricably linked. “Eritrea, a small country, achieved one of the most formidable victories in the history of the world,” he says. “We defeated Ethiopia, an African superpower. We crushed it! But in this very victory the seeds of dictatorship were planted. Now, there was a community of fighters who believed they could do anything, without help from any other country. We absorbed the mindset of the militarists entirely. We ended up fighting everyone. The gun has been everything ever since.”

It was 71-year old Isaias Afwerki, the president since 1991, who led the country to victory against Ethiopia, after a war lasting 30 years. As the leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, he promised not only hope and autonomy, but elections, too. These never came. The EPLF was renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, and it is now Eritrea’s only legal political party. All other political activity is banned; the country is estimated to have at least 10,000 political prisoners. Dissent is increasingly rare.

 Biniam Simon (left) and Fathi Osman of Radio Erena
 Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer

In 2001, a group of Afwerki’s closest associates, unsettled by the sparking of another border dispute with Ethiopia – relations between the two countries continue to be extremely tense – confronted the president, accusing him of mishandling the latest conflict; and in 2013, a group of soldiers took over the HQ of Eri-TV, calling for the release of political prisoners and the implementation of the constitution. But on both occasions, those involved were swiftly rounded up and imprisoned. The opposition is now restricted to an organisation known as Freedom Friday, which quietly puts up posters and scrawls political graffiti on banknotes. “It really takes the form of the 5,000 people who leave every month,” says Osman. “They’re the opposition.” Eritrea, which has a population of 6 million, is one of the fastest-emptying nations in the world. The diaspora is now half a million strong.

Afwerki’s oft-stated raison d’etre is the survival of his young country, which he regards as being eternally under threat – not at war, but never at peace either – and it is one that the people took at face value at first. “What makes him different from other dictators is that his lifestyle is not lavish,” says Simon. “He wants to look like one of the people, a working-class man, and in the beginning, we thought he and the others would make Eritrea great. People worked for free, including me: I did for two years. Everyone did, to build the country.” In this sense, the population’s eyes were wide open. “We saw what was happening. I can say that everyone did. But it was a new government, and those in power had no experience of civilian office, so when they made mistakes, we said: ‘OK, it’s not a big deal. They’re learning. Things will get better.’” By the time people were prepared to admit to themselves and each other that things were not getting better, it was too late to say so out loud.

Most asylum seekers cite conscription into the army as their primary reason for leaving Eritrea. In 2002, the statutory requirement of 18 months of military service for men and women – a period that begins when students are in the last year of their secondary education – was extended to become, in practice, indefinite, with the result that many people now serve well into their 50s. A UN commission has called the Eritrean army “an institution where slavery practices are routine”. The pay is minimal (around £30 a month), leave is rarely given, and conscripts remain away from home for years at a time.

Soldiers are also subject to torture, sexual torture, arbitrary detention and forced labour. The country’s mining industry is, for instance, serviced by military personnel. Conscripts also clean the streets. In effect, the entire country is a vast military camp.

In the face of such misery, how may the Eritrean people comfort themselves? Not by practising their religion, that’s for sure. The government is reported to persecute “suspect” Muslims – a term that may extend both to those it regards as extremists, and to non-Sunnis – and the Christian denominations it does not officially sanction. Some 3,000 Christians are currently imprisoned in the country (around 200 were reportedly arrested this month alone, including 20 children). The Eritrean Orthodox Church is recognised, but Abune Antonios, its 89-year-old patriarch, who was deposed by the government in 2007 after he demanded the release of imprisoned Christians, has been under house arrest for the past 10 years.

Even family life is less of a balm than it might be. People are reportedly not permitted to meet in groups larger than two, and travel permits are required to move around the country. Thanks to conscription, every family is always missing someone, and those left behind struggle to make ends meet, particularly in agricultural communities, where labour is so vital.

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, pictured in Sudan last year
 Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, pictured in Sudan last year. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Above all, people are afraid to talk freely – and so it is that the bonds weaken, and sometimes break. Simon speaks to his mother only rarely. What is there to say? “You have to be so careful,” he tells me. “Sometimes, I can’t see the point of calling at all.

Do he and Osman have it in them to feel hopeful about Eritrea’s future?

“If you don’t have hope, you’re dead,” says Simon. “Nothing is for ever.” But he doesn’t look hopeful, and as he readily admits, even if the regime were to fall, worse could follow.

“There is no working parliament, no vice president and no organised opposition. When the president goes, there will be… chaos.” Is the current government susceptible to pressure from outside? Osman believes not: “He [Afwerki] regards the rest of the world with disdain.”

In 2009, when the president was asked by a Swedish TV channel about Dawit Isaak, the Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been imprisoned without trial since 2001, his reply was chilling. “We will not have any trial and we will not free him,” he said. “We know how to handle his kind.” He added that he regarded the position of Sweden on this matter as “irrelevant”.

All they can do, then, is to continue their work at Radio Erena. In the beginning, the challenge was to get people to listen. Then it was to get them to discuss what they heard. Now, they would like to expand their coverage, by hiring journalists in other north African countries.

“If something happens to your neighbour, it will affect you,” says Simon. “Eritrea is already involved in the conflict in Yemen [where its forces are fighting on behalf of the Arab coalition].” To those who say journalism no longer matters, here it is, mattering very much indeed.

Are they homesick? Yes, though this isn’t a straightforward thing, particularly for Simon.

“I don’t live in France,” he says, with a low laugh. “Physically, I am here, of course. But I live in Eritrea. I wake up and I come here and I stay late, and then I go home and sleep. That’s all. All day long, I’m with Eritreans, talking about Eritrea.”

It is what he needs to do, but it doesn’t make him any happier. Life is lived in limbo nevertheless. “Sometimes, I feel sad. I want to see places, to take pictures with a camera. But the furthest I go is the coffee shop at the end of the street.”

The UK charity One World Media presented its 2017 special award to Radio Erena last month.