Medhanie Tesfamariam BehreImage copyright

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Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre reacting to the verdict in Palermo

An Italian court has ruled that an Eritrean man extradited to the country for people smuggling was the victim of mistaken identity.

Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre was mistaken for the alleged trafficking kingpin Mered Medhanie – known as The General.

He has spent the past three years in prison insisting he was not who prosecutors said he was.

On Friday the court admitted its error, although it gave Behre a five-year sentence for aiding people smuggling.

He was however allowed to walk free because of the time he had already spent behind bars.

“After three years finally the judge confirmed what we have been saying: we had a farmer in jail and a smuggler at large,” Behre’s lawyer Michele Calantropo told the Guardian.

Mr Calantropo said his client would appeal against his conviction for people smuggling. He added Behre – a dairy farm worker and occasional carpenter, according to his family – had applied for asylum in Italy.

British and Italian investigators had worked together to capture Behre, insisting he was at the heart of efforts to smuggle migrants from Africa to Europe.

A statement from the UK’s National Crime Agency after his arrest in 2016 said it was “confident in its intelligence gathering process”.

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NCA/Polizia di Stato

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Left: An image of the man believed to be Mered Medhanie previously released by the UK National Crime Agency; Right: Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, who was extradited to Italy

But victims and relatives of the alleged trafficking criminal Mered Medhanie had told the court they did not recognise the arrested man.

Prosecutors insisted they were correct despite DNA evidence and differences in their appearance.

“It was a nightmare. A real nightmare,” Berhe’s sister Hiwett Tesfamariam told the Guardian.

Mered Medhanie first came to public attention after being linked to the deaths of 359 migrants in October 2013 after their boat sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The General is said to have styled himself on late Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.