THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An Eritrean man accused of involvement in a brutal migrant smuggling network appeared at a pretrial hearing in the Netherlands on Tuesday, as prosecutors told judges that they will also seek the extradition of the network’s alleged ringleader, who was captured recently in Sudan.
Speaking through an interpreter, the suspect in court for the brief hearing in the eastern Dutch city of Zwolle told judges that he was a victim of mistaken identity. Prosecutors believe he is Tewelde Goitom and say they have witnesses who have identified him. The Dutch national forensics lab is carrying out an investigation to confirm his identity.
Prosecution lawyer Petra Hoekstra said she wants to join Goitom’s case with that of Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, who was arrested Jan. 1 in Sudan. He is suspected of migrant smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes and of leading a criminal network that Interpol said is responsible for “the kidnapping, extortion and murder of East African migrants.”
The international police organization said his arrest “will deal a significant blow to a major smuggling route towards Europe and protect thousands more from being exploited at the hands of the crime group.”
The Eritrean who appeared at Overijssel Court of First Instance on Tuesday was extradited to the Netherlands last year by authorities in Ethiopia.
Dutch prosecutors say they have jurisdiction to put him on trial because some of his alleged crimes happened in the Netherlands. They say that relatives of migrants seeking to make the perilous journey from East Africa through Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe were extorted by people smugglers.
“On their way to Europe, victims were beaten, tortured and raped, while they were held in camps in Libya with hundreds of others,” prosecutors said when he was extradited last year.
Family members of the migrants in the Netherlands were forced to pay large sums of money before the migrants could continue their journey to Europe in “crowded and barely seaworthy boats. Countless migrants did not survive this sea voyage,” prosecutors said.
The suspect’s Dutch lawyer, Richard van der Weide, told judges he would likely challenge the court’s jurisdiction at a later hearing.
The case was adjourned until April 6.
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