One of North Africa’s most notorious human traffickers, accused of extorting and torturing thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya, has been convicted of five counts of smuggling and trafficking in Ethiopia.
Tewelde Goitom, known as “Welid”, operated in Libya from approximately 2014 to 2018 and is believed to have been at the center of a brutal and highly lucrative trafficking of desperate migrants trying to reach Europe.
Goitom was arrested in Ethiopia in March 2020, a month after one of his accomplices, another known trafficker, Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, was also arrested. Both are originally from Eritrea.
The two men shared a compound in Bani Walid, a Libyan city dubbed the “ghost town” by migrants because of its lawlessness and the large number of people who disappeared there.
According to dozens of victims, the two smugglers held thousands of migrants captive in exchange for ransom.
Habtemariam was detained after an Ethiopian victim, who had returned to Addis Ababa from Libya through a UN repatriation program, recognized him on the street in early 2020. He was put on trial. but escaped arrest in mid-February 2021 before a verdict was rendered. The police officer guarding him was arrested and the Ethiopian attorney general’s office said an investigation is underway. Habtemariam was later found guilty of eight charges in absentia.
There has been little international attention to the trials, which have taken place without observers from human rights organizations or European embassies present in court. Remote testimony was also not allowed, meaning that the majority of the victims, scattered across Europe and Africa, were unable to testify.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist, said the verdict against Goitom should have attracted more attention. “Welid is one of the cruelest human traffickers [and] committed unimaginable crimes against Eritrean refugees. This verdict is important to send an unequivocal message to other traffickers that they cannot hide from arrest. “
Despite this, he said he has no confidence in the Ethiopian justice system. “I’m afraid Welid may bribe [them] and escape from jail, like Kidane. “
Their concerns were shared by the refugees who traveled through Libya and knew Goitom personally.
“It is better if the court transferred him to Europe,” said one Eritrean victim, who said Goitom held him captive for six months and forced him to pay $ 3,600 (£ 2,600) in ransoms. “Since he owns [a] large amount of money is simple [for him] to pay [his way out]. That is why most of us are afraid. He can flee Ethiopia. “
The witnesses who testified were all Ethiopians. Some said they feared for their lives, but desperately wanted justice to be served. Many said they had traveled to Libya because they were promised they would get to Europe quickly for an agreed fee. Once they arrived in the North African country, prices rose and they realized that there was no guarantee that they would be put on a boat to try and cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Instead, they were kept in warehouses for up to 18 months. Every day, they were forced to call their families, who transferred thousands of pounds to Goitom or Habtemariam to save their lives. The longer it took to pay, the more abuse and beatings they suffered. Some said their friends were killed or died due to medical negligence.
“I was about to lose my sanity,” said a man who testified in court. “My friend tried to hang himself. We were desperate and surrounded by concrete and snipers. “
In court, the victims said the two traffickers forced the captives to play soccer matches with each other and shot the players who did not score.
Witnesses at both trials said they were offered bribes not to testify. Musician and alleged partner of Habtemariam, Ethiopian singer-songwriter Tarekegn Mulu, has since been arrested and accused of trying to pressure witnesses.
The Guardian requested an interview with Goitom, but the request was rejected.
Goitom was sentenced under the name Amanuel Yirga Damte, which according to the victims is a false identity. He will be sentenced on May 21.