A notorious human trafficker from Eritrea, who escaped from custody earlier this year while on trial, has been sentenced to life without parole in absentia by an Ethiopian court on Wednesday.
Kidane Zekarias, who oversaw an extensive human smuggling operation in Libya, was apprehended in Addis Ababa in February 2020, after one of his victims, Fuad Bedru, recognised him in the street and called the police.
“I am happy about the seriousness of the punishment,” said Fuad, who paid thousands of dollars for his freedom after being held by Kidane in Libya.
“But it is a fictitious justice since he still remains free,” Fuad said shortly after the verdict, in which Kidane was also ordered to pay a 1,000,000 birr (US$23,035) fine.
According to charges seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Zekarias held thousands of African refugees and migrants in warehouses in Libya and extorted thousands of dollars from them and families.
Thousands of refugees and migrants undertake long, dangerous journeys in small boats from Libya to Europe each year in search of a better life, often drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
Criminals have been exploiting the instability in Libya, where there has been little central authority since the 2011 uprising, by detaining migrants in warehouses and torturing them for ransom.
Kidane was one of the key smugglers operating between 2014 and 2018, together with another Eritrean, Tewelde Goitom, also known as Welid, who was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment and a 200,000 birr fine in Addis Ababa on Monday.
But Kidane escaped from court premises in Addis Ababa in February, after nearly a year of trial on eight counts of human trafficking. A police officer was arrested and an investigation is on-going, according to Ethiopian authorities.
Victims and their families said Kidane’s escape shattered all hopes of justice they had. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Co-defendant Saba Mendir was sentenced to 12 years in jail and a 70,000 birr fine for assisting Kidane by letting him use her bank account.
“With God’s will, justice has been served,” said Temesgen Tilahun, whose brother died after being taken hostage by Kidane.
“Now it is the government’s role to make the justice true and complete by apprehending Kidane once more.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)