By Steve Scherer and Wladimir Pantaleone
ROME/PALERMO (Reuters) - A suspected people smuggler who alleged he had been mistakenly arrested and extradited to Italy is indeed the man prosecutors had sought, Palermo magistrates said after investigating his identity.
Sudanese witnesses and the man's lawyer have said the suspect, who was initially identified as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, is not the smuggler sought for running a human trafficking network that sent thousands of migrants to Europe and many to their deaths at sea.
But Palermo prosecutors listed a series of reasons in a document seen by Reuters that they say show him to be the man they consider to be the smuggling kingpin who goes by the nickname "the General".
"There are many factors that confirm that the person we wire tapped, investigated in 2014, and sought to arrest for international people smuggling in 2015 is the same man who was arrested in Sudan and extradited to Italy," a prosecutor told a closed hearing on Thursday, according to a judicial source.
If his identity is confirmed by the court, it would be the first time a suspected trafficking kingpin has been tracked down in Africa and brought to face justice in Italy since Europe's immigration crisis started almost three years ago.
Prosecutors however admit that they may have got his name wrong, and they also say that the picture that had been circulated of their suspect, which bears little resemblance to the man arrested, was discovered to be of someone else who had nothing to do with the case.
The suspect's lawyer, Michele Calantropo, told Reuters his client's real name was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. He said he had been living in Khartoum as an Eritrean refugee when he was arrested in May, and had no ties to people smuggling.
"We are also continuing our own investigations and we will show our results to the judge at the next hearing on Sept. 21. The wrong man is in prison," Calantropo said.
At a hearing on Thursday, prosecutors presented the results of their investigation to the judge who will decide whether the suspect must remain in prison or not.
The case underscores the difficulties in fighting people smuggling to Europe from Africa. Both Italy and Britain, whose National Crime Agency helped coordinate the man's arrest with Sudanese authorities, have a lot riding on the case.
If it turns out that the wrong man was seized, it would be a huge blow in their battle against traffickers who have shipped more than 400,000 migrants to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
In a 27-page document Palermo prosecutors Calogero Ferrara and Claudio Camilleri list 17 elements that they said proves the suspect in custody is the man they had sought.
The reason for the name discrepancy was due to the fact that prosecutors had to deduce his identity from wiretaps, the document says. The suspect used different names on each of his multiple social media accounts.
A cell phone Medhanie was carrying when arrested had accessed the same Facebook account as the man investigated in 2014, and had spoken to some of the same people.
Medhanie was carrying the phone number of a man whom he had spoken with on 78 occasions during the original investigation, which was launched after a shipwreck that killed more than 360 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013.
A voice recognition specialist also compared wiretaps and said there was a similarity between the voices, but could not say with certainty it was the same man.
Medhanie originally volunteered to allow authorities to record his voice in prison to help improve the accuracy of the voice recognition test, but refused when technicians came to make the recording, the court document said.
(Editing by Crispian Balmer)