A woman and man sit on a couch holding a photograph.
Yestihareg Tefera, mother of Daniel Tilahun, and his brother, Temesgen, sit in their home in Cherkos, Addis Ababa, with a photo of the teenager who died in Libya. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

How Did One of North Africa’s Biggest Human Traffickers Escape Prison?

Evidence suggests corruption and police complicity led to the escape of a notorious smuggler accused of transporting, extorting, and imprisoning thousands of migrants.
February 23, 2021, 4:16pm

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — One afternoon in February 2020, 24-year-old Fuad Bedru spotted someone he knew in Ethiopia’s capital.

Outside of an electronics shop, in Bedru’s own neighborhood in Addis Ababa, Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, one of the most notorious human smugglers operating in Libya over the past decade, stood tall. Habtemariam, a sturdy, bald Eritrean man, is accused of extreme violence towards thousands of African refugees and migrants he kept locked up for months or years in warehouses in Libya, after his associates convinced them to try and reach Europe. Those who ended up under his control were convinced by false promises of a fast journey to a continent where human rights were respected, and they could easily get jobs, find stability, and live a happy life. Instead, they were tortured and blackmailed.

Advertisement

Bedru, who spent three months held captive by Habtemariam in 2018, couldn’t believe his luck. He ran to a nearby policeman and asked him to arrest Habtemariam immediately. 

According to Bedru and the policeman he approached, Habtemariam tried to bribe them both, pulling $500 from his pocket and promising riches beyond that. Bedru doesn’t have a steady job and he is still struggling to pay back more than $10,000 that his family deposited in ransoms while he was in Libya, including nearly $6,000 demanded by Habtemariam himself. Still, he turned down the offer. “The moral side, the human side of me couldn’t do that,” he told me in October, sitting close to where the arrest took place. “He is a criminal.”

But now, Bedru’s attempt to get justice for himself and thousands of other victims is in peril; after just a year in prison, Habtemariam escaped last week. 

Ethiopian authorities did not treat Habtemariam as a high-risk defendant, while European diplomats, international human rights organizations and UN agencies, who repeatedly talk about the need to tackle smuggling, failed to monitor the case. A legal trial was ongoing, though proceedings had slowed down as Habtemariam delayed presenting a defense, while some evidence appeared to go missing. 

After just a year in prison, Habtemariam escaped last week.

According to multiple sources in Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office, Habtemariam went to the bathroom in a corner of the Addis Ababa federal court complex ahead of the most recent trial hearing last Thursday. He changed out of his orange prison uniform, into a set of new clothes that had been left there, and simply walked out. The police officers charged with guarding him are now under arrest, suspected of facilitating Habtemariam’s escape in return for bribes. “A drama has played out and he has walked away,” said Temesgen Lapiso, Addis Ababa attorney general director for organized and cross-border crime. “He had been attempting to bribe police officers since day one of his arrest … [They] have no understanding of the gravity of his crime and how important his imprisonment is.”

Tewelde Goitom, another notorious Eritrean smuggler, was arrested in Ethiopia in March 2020 and went on trial concurrently with Habtemariam; now, after the latter’s escape, experts are concerned about accountability for Goitom.

Advertisement

The escape is also hugely embarrassing for Ethiopia, where witnesses had worried about the scale of corruption and how it might stymie the road to justice. When Habtemariam escaped, none of the people who testified against him were informed or offered protection. Habtemariam’s getaway has underlined the feeling among victims that, while EU politicians continue to spout anti-smuggling rhetoric as a justification for fortifying borders and shutting out refugees, little is being done by either European or African governments to ensure victims can rebuild their lives or get justice.

For more than two years, I have been reporting on what happens to African refugees who get trapped in Libya while trying to reach Europe. In hushed tones, dozens have spoken about Bani Walid, a town known as the “Ghost City” because of the number of people who disappear or die there. This is an epicenter of a 21st century slave trade, where humans are bought and sold as their families are forced to beg or crowd-fund ransoms online to save their lives.

The most powerful smugglers in Bani Walid lived like kings, so well-known they went by a single name. They included Habtemariam—“Kidane”—and Goitom—nicknamed “Welid.” 

The men, who have been called “two of Europe’s most-wanted traffickers,” both had warehouses in the same compound, sharing guards and other resources. Victims have estimated that they extorted, held captive, and transported tens of thousands of refugees and migrants between them, from 2014 to 2018. One victim remembered Goitom boasting about moving 15,000 people across the sea to Europe in 2015 alone, when the so-called “European migrant crisis” was at a height.

Advertisement

In late 2020, I attended seven hearings, watching as armed guards led the two men separately into a third-floor room in Addis Ababa’s federal court. They came handcuffed, moving between obvious discomfort and bravado. Waiting for them were victims and their families. There were no international observers present. Often, the only people there who were not directly involved in the trial were a translator and myself.

Victims have estimated that they extorted, held captive, and transported tens of thousands of refugees and migrants between them.

One by one, nervous witnesses sat in front of a three-judge panel. They described being promised quick passage to Europe and driven across the Sahara Desert, crossing the Libyan border before it became clear they were in for something else. Locked up with hundreds of others, they were forced to call relatives as they were beaten, or left without water, food and medical care, while the amount of money demanded got higher and higher. Some witnesses tried to avoid turning and looking at the accused men when prosecutors requested they identify them—the memories were just too painful.

Victims said the smugglers had no concern for the lives of others. They watched fellow detainees weaken and die from sickness, without medical care. One accused Goitom of purposefully sending Somalis out to sea on stormy days, when their boats were in danger of capsizing, and telling other captives they “weren’t people.” Some survivors said both smugglers forced teams of weak captives to play football against each other. They would shoot at those who missed shots, and the winning man would choose a woman to rape from the other’s detainees.

Advertisement

Goitom was particularly infamous for sexual abuse. Multiple victims in different countries told VICE World News they personally know women who had babies as a result of rape by him. People held in his warehouse said he would pick out any girl or women he wanted: some married; others very young. He allegedly videotaped encounters, threatening to post them online if the woman spoke out. Relatedly, no female victim has come forward to give evidence, prosecutors say.

They would shoot at those who missed shots, and the winning man would choose a woman to rape from the other’s detainees.

“How could we take money after watching [Goitom] rape countless women?” asked Frezgi Ataklti, 24, a witness who alleges he was also offered money not to testify. Still, he is constantly afraid now, both that there will be retribution against witnesses and that Goitom too will escape.

Three people stand on a street.

Witnesses Frezgi Ataklti, Salih Mohamed, and Mohamed's mother pictured outside Addis Ababa's federal court after they gave evidence against the smuggler Tewelde Goitom. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

The number of people giving evidence was unexpectedly low given that remote testifying was not allowed, which meant that Habtemariam could only be charged on eight counts related to people smuggling and trafficking, and Goitom on five. Their victims, many of whom are fellow Eritreans and Somalis fleeing wars and dictatorships, are still searching for a safe place to live. Some have reached Europe or Tunisia, while others, in the process of being resettled to safer countries by the UN, are temporarily in Rwanda and Niger. Some victims struggle on in Libya, meaning they can’t take part in the trials. 

Ethiopian prosecutors said they were working with Interpol to try and recover money the smugglers stashed away, which could then be given back to victims, but find these returns unlikely. Ransoms were deposited in many countries, from the United Arab Emirates and Israel, to the UK and Sudan. Funds were moved on to Canada, Sweden, and others, through a network of the smugglers’ relatives and associates, prosecutors say. Few assets were found in Ethiopia. Even if compensation does happen, it is unclear if the witnesses against Habtemariam can benefit from it, given there was no verdict in his trial.

Advertisement

“Everything has its own time,” said one 22-year-old victim, who called the men “savages” and said he could barely believe the arrests had happened. “Personally I wouldn't have cared if they only smuggled. That's why we went to Libya,” he said, asking not to be named because he still hasn’t reached a secure location. “They raped virgin women. They beat people to death. They ransomed enormous amounts of money from each of us and in doing so they used all tools of torture … They starved people and many died as a result.”

Similar stories have been told by victims across the world, many of whom don’t know each other. Yet prosecutors, before Habtemariam’s escape, estimated the smugglers would get less than 10 years in prison out of a maximum possible 25-year sentence, because of sentencing guidelines and the lack of evidence. 

The only formal extradition request came from the Netherlands, Lapiso said. Informally, Italy also asked about the possibility, but Lapiso said it wouldn’t happen, even after a prison sentence was over. “We have the evidence, we can handle them and we are handling it right now,” he said in October. “There is no sound reason to hand them over to another country.” 

Italy, according to the prosecutors, reportedly refused to share information it gathered about the two smugglers because of a policy of not allowing cooperation in situations where Ethiopia could theoretically inflict the death penalty. (This is the same reason Italy sheltered two accused war criminals in their Addis Ababa embassy for nearly 30 years.) “They told us they have [a lot of] evidence concerning these guys,” Lapiso said. The death penalty is extremely unlikely anyway, he added, because it can’t be inflicted if there is a single mitigating circumstance.

Advertisement

After the trials began, Lapiso said there had been no communication or follow up by any of the embassies, who did not respond to my requests for comment. He was also not aware of any communication from the International Criminal Court, which has previously shown interest in prosecuting smugglers operating in Libya. In 2017, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the UN Security Council she had received “credible accounts that Libya has become a marketplace for the trafficking of human beings.” 

“We must act to curb these worrying trends,” she said. (The ICC did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though one person with knowledge of their investigation said it was important to remember it is a court of last resort and has no jurisdiction if a crime is being prosecuted domestically.) 

Anti-smuggling rhetoric has been the stated impetus for many of the European Union’s anti-refugee policies in recent years. In 2017, the EU began to provide training, equipment and other support to the Libyan coastguard, so it could intercept refugee boats on the Mediterranean Sea and turn them back. More than $100 million has been allocated, despite there being evidence of crossover between the coastguard’s loose collection of officials and smuggling networks. The EU recently signed another $121 million worth of deals to fly drones across the Mediterranean, which can spot boats and direct the coastguard right to them. 

Habtemariam’s escape is just another symbol that international efforts are focused at stopping European arrivals at any cost, rather than implementing a victim-centric approach.

Between 2017 and 2020, more than 55,000 men, women and children were caught and returned to Libya. This had a direct impact on the smuggling trade there and removed most chances of escape. Smugglers began to extort refugees already under their control for more and more money—torturing them, selling them between each other, and eventually abandoning them, sometimes without even bothering to put them in boats. For refugees and migrants who have become caught up in this violent trap, Habtemariam’s escape is just another symbol that international efforts are focused at stopping European arrivals at any cost, rather than implementing a victim-centric approach.

Smuggling prosecutions are notoriously imperfect and often political, with European security forces regularly accused of pursuing innocent people.

Advertisement

In one high-profile case, farmworker Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe spent three years locked up in Italy after he was extradited from Sudan in 2016 on charges of human smuggling. But it was a mistake: Berhe was confused for Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a man accused of overseeing the travel of 13,000 people to Europe. Even after journalists exposed the truth, Italian prosecutors doubled down, insisting they had the right person; Berhe was only released in 2019. 

VICE World News confirmed with dozens of people that the prisoners on trial in the Ethiopian court were Habtemariam and Goitom, but there were other irregularities. Habtemariam’s age was listed as 51, but victims, including one who went to school with Habtemariam in Eritrea, say he is in his early 40s. One of the phones Habtemariam had on him when he was caught went missing, and was not listed on an evidence sheet. “It's really corruption,” said the victim, who is now in Sweden. “They are playing a big game.”

Goitom is being charged under what victims say is a fake name: Amanuel Yirga Damte. When asked about it, prosecutors said it was the name he gave police when he was arrested. 

A portrait of a man against the backdrop of colorful apartment buildings.

Fuad Bedru, 24, spotted human smuggler Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam in Addis Ababa last February and encouraged a police officer to arrest him. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

Independent legal researchers who read the charge sheets, which VICE World News also has copies of, described them as confusing and poorly drafted. And there seemed to be clear omissions: For example, Bedru, the young man whose quick thinking secured Habtemariam’s arrest, wasn’t called to court or included in the cases. 

In the lead-up to the trial, witnesses were pressured not to participate. Some described receiving phone calls from people offering them rewards, along with suggestions that they keep their testimony deliberately vague. Ahead of one hearing, witnesses were approached outside the courtroom by men carrying cash; they said Goitom, who was present, in handcuffs, directly urged them to take it. That same day, three of Goitom’s contacts were forced to leave the federal court by police. (The accused men, through their lawyers, as well as the lawyers themselves, declined to be interviewed prior to Habtemariam’s escape.)

In the lead-up to the trial, witnesses were pressured not to participate.

A lawyer, Desta Mesfin, and a well-known musician, Tarekegn Mulu, allegedly connected to the smugglers, are also facing charges for their roles in attempted bribery. “They are trying what they can,” Lapiso said in October. “In Ethiopia there is a proverb: ‘Genzeb kale bezemay menged ale’. This means ‘If there is money, there is a way through the sky,’” a victim said. 

For now, Goitom remains in prison. “Seeing him again in this condition made me happy, even if I never made it to Europe,” Salih Mohamed, a 32-year-old father of three, told VICE World News shortly after he testified against his former smuggler. He had a scar on his head that he said was caused by beatings in Goitom’s warehouse. ”He used to haunt me in my dreams,” Mohamed said, but being involved in the trial made him feel enthusiastic about life again. 

Advertisement

Still, Mohamed would have preferred if the cases were prosecuted outside the country. “He has money,” Mohamed told me. “If he manages to get out of prison even after 10 or 20 years, he will not have mercy on us. He won’t let us live.”

In an interview days after Habtemariam’s escape, Lapiso, the Addis Ababa attorney general director for organized and cross-border crime, said they have had no success in trying to find the smuggler. Still, he was defiant, arguing that Ethiopia shouldn’t be judged by their failure to manage this case. “Prisoners have escaped from all kinds of countries, even highly civilized nations. This incident occurred due to a failure or mistake made by a few individuals, it is not a fair analogy to question the nation’s capacity.” He said he hoped the prison and its officers would “stay alert” so Goitom didn’t get away too.

Daniel Tilahun’s mother, Yestihareg Tefera, has sat quietly in court over the past few months, looking at Habtemariam, the man she believes is responsible for her son’s death. She testified herself, hoping to see justice done.

Thousands of people from Cherkos, their impoverished neighborhood in Addis Ababa, have made the journey west, through Sudan to Libya, with the goal of crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. This area even birthed some of the Ethiopian Christians who were publicly beheaded by ISIS in Libya in 2015, but that didn’t deter locals from traveling. While smuggling networks have representatives all along the route, from Addis Ababa to Khartoum, it is inside Libya that the most ruthless smugglers work—the ones who hold thousands of refugees and migrants in warehouses.

Advertisement

Tefera first knew something was amiss when Tilahun, a quiet 18-year-old who kept to himself, lost interest in his business. He had been installing TV satellites with his older brother, saving up to start his own electronics shop. He began to watch National Geographic like he was studying it, trying to learn about other countries and how to survive in them. As his earnings from work grew, Tefera said, he was targeted by a local woman, someone Tefera called a “hustler” and “spiritualist,” who worked with smugglers and looked for young men with a little money and big dreams.

While smuggling networks have representatives all along the route, from Addis Ababa to Khartoum, it is inside Libya that the most ruthless smugglers work—the ones who hold thousands of refugees and migrants in warehouses.

In a framed photograph of Tilahun in Tefera’s home, he is smiling, wearing a white t-shirt with his hands in his pockets and a backpack over one shoulder. “Daniel was just a kid,” said Temesgen.

Tilahun had saved over $2,000 before he set out for his trip. He only told his family he was leaving on the day he said goodbye on May 6, 2017. “It takes a strong heart to attempt that journey,” his mother said, on the verge of tears.

After a dangerous drive through the desert, and an initial payment much higher than expected, Tilahun ended up under the control of Habtemariam, where he was told to pay another $5,500—money his family would have to find. “The deal changed from crossing the sea to buying your life,” Temesgen remembered. After he left, the family never saw Tilahun alive again.

The teenager stayed under the control of smugglers for years, even after Habtemariam reportedly left Libya for the last time. He communicated with his family via WhatsApp and Facebook, or sent messages through fellow captives. In an audio message, Tilahun told his sister that his friends had finally been released. “Please do your absolute best to make the deposit in a week, even in two days if possible,” he said. “They beat me up every single day, they punish us with food and a lot of other things, I don’t think I can take it anymore … The situation I am in right now is between life and death.” 

In October 2018, his family made a final payment of almost $5,000, with money raised through public radio appeals, contributions from neighbors and friends, and begging in a city market. They were promised Tilahun would cross the sea shortly afterwards, but nothing changed. Tilahun’s last messages to his sister, sent through a messaging app on July 30, 2019 read “Don’t worry about my absence, just pray for me.”

“I don’t think I can take it anymore … The situation I am in right now is between life and death.”

Eventually, word reached his family that Tilahun had died, but the information was garbled and they still don’t know how it happened. It could have been the result of drowning at sea or years of abuse and torture in the Libyan warehouse. Temesgen said the details don’t really matter, as “it won’t bring him back.” 

“We dearly hope that with God’s help, justice will be served,” his mother added. Before his escape, she prayed Habtemariam would be convicted and given a lengthy sentence. 

The family risked a lot to give evidence in the smuggling trials, but they initially said it was worth it. Temesgen was hoping for consequences.  “I want the whole [smuggling] chain from top to bottom torn apart,” he said. “Every level held responsible.” 

Additional reporting by Lule Estifanos and Kaleab Girma. 

Sally Hayden's reporting in Ethiopia was funded by Journalists for Transparency, a project of Transparency International, which is working in collaboration with 100Reporters, a US-based nonprofit news organization.