Migrants unable to pay for their journeys across the Mediterranean are being sold to organ traffickers, an Eritrean smuggler has told Italian authorities.
Nuredin Wehabrebi Atta, who was arrested by Italian police in 2014, is the first foreigner given witness protection by Italian authorities, after revealing details that have led to arrests of dozens of alleged members of an elaborate criminal network trafficking drugs, arms and migrants from Africa to Europe.
Those who were unable to pay for their voyages "were sold for £15,000 ($23,185) to groups, particularly Egyptians, who were involved in removing and selling organs", Atta claimed.
His testimony led police to an alleged trafficking network which they broke up yesterday, arresting 23 and issuing arrest warrants for another 15 people in raids across Italy.
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The group included 25 Eritreans, 12 Ethiopians and an Italian who police said belonged to an organisation that had smuggled thousands of migrants into Europe from Africa.
The arrests were part of a lengthy investigation conducted by Italian police connected to Atta's testimony that revealed cells in North Africa, Rome, Palermo, Agrigento and other locations in Europe.
More than £526,000 and US$25,000 ($34,700) in cash was recovered in June from the alleged Rome cell which had its headquarters in a perfume shop near the city's central station.
The former people smuggler was sentenced to five years in prison in February for his role in the operation. He said he decided to collaborate "because there have been too many deaths in the sea" and referred in particular to the 2013 tragedy in which 360 people were killed at Lampedusa, although he said he was not involved in it.
Yesterday, a Palermo court heard that another alleged Eritrean smuggler extradited to Italy with the assistance of Britain's National Crime Agency was the wrong man.
At a preliminary court hearing, defence lawyer Michele Calantropo presented testimony from two refugees now living in Sweden claiming that the arrested man is not the alleged notorious people smuggler Medhanie Yehdego Mered, as authorities say.
Calantropo told the court the arrested man was Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, who the refugees say has no connection to people smuggling, and asked for him to be released from prison immediately. The hearing has been adjourned until July 21.