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Photo of the real Medhanie Yehdego Mered.

Almost a year ago, Italian and British investigators claimed they had made a breakthrough in their efforts to crack open the North African human-trafficking and smuggling networks that were sending thousands of migrants to their deaths in the Mediterranean. They said they had arrested Medhanie Yehdego Mered, a notorious Eritrean who Italian prosecutors believe to be a smuggling kingpin.

Today, it appears the prosecutors' case is falling apart under a flurry of official and unofficial reports that the real Mr. Mered is still at large and that the man on trial is in fact a 29-year-old Eritrean refugee and dairy worker named Medhanie Tesfarmariam Berhe with no trafficking connections whatsoever.

In a Palermo court on Tuesday, the prosecution again failed to produce any evidence that the suspect is the trafficker nicknamed "the General," a tribute to his reputation as one of the most powerful human smugglers in Africa. In an interview after the court hearing, Michele Calantropo, the suspect's lawyer, said he has no doubt his client is Mr. Berhe, not Mr. Mered.

"I have never seen a defence case so clear," he told The Globe and Mail. "I will produce 42 witnesses who will testify that my client is not the real trafficker. Some of my clients will say they know because they were actually smuggled by the real Mered."

So far, the prosecution has produced no witnesses who have said the suspect is the actual Mr. Mered.

If the suspect is proved innocent, the campaign to crack down on the human-smuggling and trafficking networks will suffer a severe blow – as will the credibility of the investigators behind the arrest.

Mr. Mered and his kind stand accused of terrible atrocities – sending unseaworthy boats dangerously overladen with migrants across the sea from Africa to Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, 649 migrants died or went missing between Jan. 1 and March 26 this year trying to cross the Mediterranean. That's up from 566 deaths in the same period last year, when the migrant flows were much larger. And the figures do not include migrants who crossed the Sahara to reach the Libyan coast, from where most of the boats leave, destined for Italy and Greece.

Last year, 5,098 migrants died making the crossing, up 35 per cent from the previous year despite better rescue efforts by the Italian coast guard and charities such as MOAS – the Migrant Offshore Aid Station – whose small ships patrol the water between Italy and Libya searching for boats in distress.

In addition to killing thousands of migrants after shaking them down for small fortunes, the human traffickers are sending armies of victims to effectively become sex slaves in Europe. Many of the street prostitutes in Sicily are brutally controlled by local Nigerian bosses, according to local authorities, charities and church groups who monitor their numbers and health and try to get them off the street.

"These girls are not prostitutes, they are the victims of trafficking," said Rev. Enzo Volpe, 48, a Catholic priest at Palermo's Santa Chiara Church who tries to convince the Nigerian women, many of them teenagers, to stop selling their bodies and escape. "They are slaves."

Italian investigators became aware of Mr. Mered through wiretaps put in place after the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, in which a ship full of migrants sunk off the coast of the Italian island and more than 360 people died. Their investigations – known as Glauco 1 and Glauco 2 – produced recordings of Mr. Mered's conversations. In one, he boasted: "I will be the new Gadhafi," a reference to the Libyan dictator, who was killed in 2011. In another, he said he planned to invest 170,000 dollars or euros (the currency was not specified) of his smuggling income in Canada. In fact, the Glauco investigations contain several references to Canada, suggesting the smuggling networks extend across the Atlantic.

Shortly after the Italians and the British arrested the alleged Mr. Mered in Sudan in June – British assistance in the case came through the National Crime Agency – and had him extradited to Italy, reports questioning the identify of the man surfaced. The Guardian and The Globe, among other newspapers, carried interviews with friends and family members of Mr. Berhe who insisted he was not Mr. Mered. Published pictures appeared to confirm that Mr. Mered and Mr. Berhe were not the same man.

In the following months, even official sources questioned the identity of the suspect. The Eritrean government said it was a case of mistaken identify. Prosecutors in Rome, who were conducting their own investigation into the case, suggested the Sicilian prosecutors had gone after the wrong man. "This prosecution office has good grounds to state that the real physical aspect of Medhanie Yehdego Mered is the one in the attached photo," the Roman prosecutors said in a 23-page document, referring to a photo of a man who is much different in appearance than the suspect.

The Guardian even reported that Mr. Mered himself used a private Facebook message, written in Tigrinya, an Eritrean and Ethiopian language, to say the wrong man was on trial in Sicily. On Monday, an Eritrean who now lives in Alberta and did not want to be identified by name told The Globe that the real Mr. Mered was a customer of the cafeteria he ran in Sudan between 2009 and 2012. "I knew this guy," the Alberta man said. "The man under arrest is not the real Mered … Mered had communication with me four months ago. He said [the arrest] was a big mistake."

The Italian prosecutors have so far refused to admit they may have put the wrong man on trial. The trial continues on April 11.

Meanwhile, the human smugglers and traffickers continue to send thousands of migrants each month across the Mediterranean.