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‘Cruel’ trafficker accused of torturing refugees found guilty in Ethiopia

‘Cruel’ trafficker accused of torturing refugees found guilty in Ethiopia

Tewelde Goitom reportedly ran a brutal and lucrative trade extorting migrants desperate to reach Europe from Libya

Witnesses gather following a hearing in the smuggling trials in Addis Ababa’s federal court in October. Photograph: Sally Hayden

(Theguardian0)–One of north Africa’s most notorious human traffickers, accused of extorting and torturing thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya, has been found guilty on five counts of smuggling and trafficking in Ethiopia.

Tewelde Goitom, known as “Welid”, operated in Libya between roughly 2014 and 2018 and is thought to have been at the heart of a highly lucrative and brutal trade trafficking desperate migrants trying to reach Europe.

Tewelde Goitom, known as ‘Welid’, is thought to have been at the heart of a highly lucrative trade in people trafficking. Photograph: Handout

Goitom was arrested in Ethiopia in March 2020, one month after one of his co-conspirators, another well-known trafficker, Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, was also arrested. They are both originally from Eritrea.

The two men shared a compound in Bani Walid, a Libyan town nicknamed the “ghost city” by migrants, because of its lawlessness and the large number of people who disappeared there.

According to dozens of victims, the two traffickers held thousands of migrants captive for ransom.

Habtemariam was detained after an Ethiopian victim, who had returned to Addis Ababa from Libya through a UN repatriation programme, recognised him on the street in early 2020. He was put on trial, but escaped detention in mid-February 2021 before a verdict had been passed. The police officer who was guarding him has been arrested, and Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office said an investigation is ongoing. Habtemariam was later found guilty on eight charges in absentia.

There has been little international attention on the trials, which have taken place without observers from human rights organisations or European embassies present in court. Remote testifying was also not allowed, meaning that most victims – scattered across Europe and Africa – were not able to give evidence.

Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist, said the verdict against Goitom should have attracted more attention. “Welid is one of the cruellest human traffickers [and] committed unimaginable crimes against Eritrean refugees. This verdict is significant in sending an unequivocal message to other traffickers that they can’t hide from being apprehended.”

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam escaped detention in mid-February. Photograph: Handout

Despite this, she said she has no confidence in the Ethiopian justice system. “I fear that Welid will be able to bribe [them] and run away from prison, like Kidane.”

Her concerns were shared by refugees who travelled through Libya and knew Goitom personally.

“It is better if the court transferred him to Europe,” said an Eritrean victim, who said he was held captive by Goitom for six months and forced to pay $3,600 (£2,600) in ransoms. “Since he owns [a] huge amount of money it is simple [for him] to pay [his way out]. That’s why most of us are afraid. He can flee from Ethiopia.”

The witnesses who did testify were all Ethiopian. Some said they were scared for their lives, but desperately wanted justice to be done. Many said they had travelled to Libya because they were promised that they would reach Europe quickly for an agreed fee. Once they got to the north African country, the prices were increased and they realised there was no guarantee they would even be put in a boat to try to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Instead, they were held in warehouses for as long as 18 months. Each day, they were forced to call their families, who transferred thousands of pounds to Goitom or Habtemariam in order to save their lives. The longer it took to pay, the more they were abused and beaten. Some said their friends were killed or died from medical neglect.

“I was close to losing my sanity,” said one man who testified in court. “My friend attempted to hang himself. We were hopeless and surrounded by concrete and snipers.”

In court, victims said the two traffickers forced captives to play football matches against each other and shot at players who missed goals.

A victim shows a scar from his time with smugglers in Libya. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Witnesses in both trials said they were offered bribes not to testify. A musician and alleged associate of Habtemariam’s, Ethiopian singer-songwriter Tarekegn Mulu, has since been arrested and accused of attempting to pressure witnesses.

The Guardian requested an interview with Goitom but the request was declined.

Goitom was convicted under the name Amanuel Yirga Damte, which victims say is a false identity. He will be sentenced on 21 May.

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