Palermo prosecutor leads trafficking fightback

Lara Sirignano – ANSA

6 minute read

Italian prosecutor Geri Ferrara is taking a multi-pronged approach to tackling the massive task of bringing the well-organised and wealthy ring of people traffickers to justice.

PALERMO: The turnaround in the fight against human traffickers was marked by one of the biggest migrant tragedies since the beginning of the century, when 368 people died and 20 went missing off the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013.

The victims, most of whom were fleeing the regime of dictator Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, died less than a mile away from their dream destination: the coast of Sicily where they hoped to start a new life.

Despite calm waters and the bpat being so close to Lampedusa, a fire broke out on board and more than 550 terrified passengers were thrown to one side of the boat they had left Libya in, causing it to overturn.

Geri Ferrara, a public prosecutor with Palermo's anti-mafia directorate, was one of the first in Italy to recognise that more had to be - and could be - done in the fight against those profiting from people trafficking and in the process, turning the Strait of Sicily into a tomb.

"Up until then, investigations into migrant landings were limited to identifying the traffickers," Ferrara told ays.

"I listened to the chilling accounts from the survivors, and they spoke of all the phases of the journey, starting with the desert crossing to reach the Libyan coasts and the torture and imprisonment before leaving for sea.

"I organised an inter-agency meeting with investigators who had already been working on migrants for some time. We realised that we had material to work with in order to get to the traffickers, to find out who was behind these trips."

Ferrara discovered that one of the key players, Ethiopian Ermias Ghermay, had been intercepted during a drug-trafficking investigation conducted by a different prosecutor's office. 

By monitoring Ghermay's phone, officials exposed his "colonels" and soon realised they were dealing with a well-structured organisation that handled everything from smuggling people across the desert - during which many were kidnapped and released only after a ransom was paid - to their arrival in Libya, stays in prisons, and finally the sea voyage. 

Ferrara says immediately following the 2013 tragedy, and thanks to survivor testimony, officials arrested a Palestinian man and a Somali man, both of whom helped organise the crossing in the Straight of Sicily that led to the shipwreck.

Palestinian Attour Abdalmenem was sentenced to 14 years while Somali Mouhamud Elmi Muhidin, who was charged with raping various women who left from Libya, as well as dealing and trafficking in human beings, was sentenced to 30 years.

The investigation, conducted by Italian state police and the local officers in Palermo and Agrigento, really came alive in June 2014 with its first big success, an operation known by the code name Glauco.

That marked the first time that not only traffickers, but also their "soldiers" and "colonels", went to prison.

They were members of one of the largest criminal organisations managing human trafficking in Africa as well as the stay in Italy for the survivors and their eventual transfer to northern Europe. In that operation, however, Ermais Ghermay - known as the "godfather of all traffickers" - remained at large.

Ghermay was greedy, cynical, and rich; in one wiretap, he was heard commenting on one of the many boat trips gone bad as such: "The boat didn't arrive. They're dead."

Yet another tragedy, this one in April 2015, would mark a turning point in the investigations. In that shipwreck in the Straight of Sicily, a boat carrying more than 900 people sank, with over 700 dying. Only a few dozen bodies were recovered.

That's when Weahbrebi Atta, who was arrested in Operation Glauco, decided to talk.

"I can't stand anymore counting the bodies I'm responsible for," he told investigators.

When Atta talked, it led to Operation Glauco 2, in which 24 suspects were identified.

Sixteen were jailed, while eight including Ermias remained on the run.

Meanwhile, Palermo prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi brought together a pool of legal experts to work specifically on trafficking investigations.

Voi himself brought great skill in international investigative cooperation as well as years of experience at the EU agency Eurojust, which works on judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

Since 2013, the Palermo prosecutor's office has arrested over 200 members of the criminal association that manages human trafficking and pockets tens of millions of euros.

"Consider just the fact that, for every boat that leaves, between 80,000 and 100,000 euros end up in the trafficker's pockets," Ferrara says.

Beyond the milestones of the arrests themselves, Ferrara says the investigations marked the first time that charges of criminal association in migrant trafficking were brought before an Italian court and resulted in convictions.

For his work, Ferrara has been named as a Council of Europe expert, but says there are still many challenges to overcome, from seemingly "banal" ones like interpreters, to more complex ones, such as international cooperation.

Investigators using wiretaps often hear people speaking different African dialects, and it's hard to find interpreters to translate them, or, potential interpreters refuse to help out of fear.

As far as international cooperation goes, sometimes the prosecutor's office has been able to work with countries with whom Italy has no formal cooperation agreement, which Ferrara says has been the result of "great effort and specific understandings".

One example is Sudan, which gave up the Eritrean Yehdego Mehane who is now on trial in Italy and is accused of being Ermais's "right-hand man"

But in countries like Libya, where the political situation is fraught, Ferrara says it can be hard to know who his counterparts are, while in other countries, particular laws can hamper investigations.

He cited the example of Norway, where authorities are required to inform those under investigation when printouts of their phone conversations are requested, which he said has "obvious risks" for investigations.

Then there's the problem of making requests to foreign courts for help when wiretaps have been made outside of Italy, as well as the new crime of illegal immigration that has been introduced in Italy.

"The migrant who has risked his life and paid to come to Italy finds himself under investigation and can't be heard as a witness, but needs a lawyer and can invoke the right to remain silent, and in any case, his statements are considered less reliable than those of witnesses," Ferrara says.

Clearly, there's still a lot of work to be done, but the path has been set, and it leads to the heart of human trafficking.