PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - A Sicilian judge on Wednesday ordered a trial for an Eritrean man accused of running a people smuggling network that sent thousands of migrants to Europe and many to their deaths during dangerous sea voyages to the continent.
Judge Alessia Geraci said Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhean would stand trial in Palermo, capital of Italy's southern island of Sicily, on Nov. 16 on charges of abetting illegal immigration and engaging in human trafficking.
Medhanie was arrested in May in Sudan and extradited to Italy, the European entry point for many migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats from North Africa.
It was the first time a suspected trafficking kingpin was tracked down in Africa and brought to face justice in Italy since Europe's migration crisis started almost three years ago.
However, friends and family of Medhanie say it is a case of mistaken identity, arguing that he was an impoverished 29-year-old refugee with no criminal background, who was living quietly in Khartoum and seeking to join his siblings in the United States when he was arrested in a rundown cafe.
Medhanie denies all the charges.
His arrest was coordinated by Italy and Britain's National Crime Agency. They maintain they have the right man, but acknowledged that they initially got his name wrong and put out the photograph of another man.
More than 300,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean this year looking to reach Europe, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Some 3,210 migrants are reported to have died or gone missing while attempting the journey since Jan. 1.
(Reporting by Vladimiro Pantaleone writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Mark Heinrich)