By Leul Estifanos
ADDIS ABABA, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – An Eritrean trafficker who starved and tortured his victims to death was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Ethiopia on Wednesday, after escaping custody four months ago.
Kidane Zekarias held thousands of African refugees and migrants, headed for Europe, in warehouses in Libya and extorted thousands of dollars from them and their families, according to charges seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The notorious smuggler was arrested in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, in 2020, after one of his Ethiopian victims, Fuad Bedru, recognised him on the street and alerted 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 ($23,035) fine.
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 ongoing, according to Ethiopian authorites.
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.”