Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam was previously sentenced to life in jail in absentia for extorting money from African migrants
A notorious human trafficker convicted of smuggling thousands of people during the European migrant crisis has been arrested in an international operation led by the UAE in coordination with Interpol.
Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, an Eritrean national who had been on Interpol’s radar since 2019, was arrested in Sudan on January 1. According to the UAE Interior Ministry, he led an organization that “kidnapped, mistreated and extorted East African migrants to smuggle them into Europe.”
Habtemariam was initially arrested in Ethiopia in 2020, but escaped from a court building in Addis Ababa the following year. An Ethiopian court sentenced him to life in prison in absentia for human trafficking in 2021. Habtemariam was charged with holding refugees and migrants in warehouses in Libya, and extorting thousands of dollars from them and their families, Reuters reported at the time, citing legal documents.
He was also wanted in the Netherlands, with the Dutch government describing him as “one of the world’s most notorious and cruelest people smugglers.” According to the Dutch authorities, Habtemariam ran a migrant camp in Libya, where residents were held by force, beaten and raped.
Officials said Habtemariam exploited the plight of people who desperately tried to escape to Europe, which saw a large influx of migrants since 2014. Many of them were forced to languish in camps in Libya and embark on a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea on overcrowded and unsafe boats.
“It is estimated that since 2014, Kidane is responsible for having trafficked hundreds of victims. His arrest will neutralize a major people smuggling route towards Europe and protect thousands who would have been at risk of exploitation,” the UAE Interior Ministry said on Thursday in a statement on its website.
Brigadier Saeed Abdullah al Suwaidi, a top Emirati anti-narcotics official, said the suspect’s arrest had allowed the route to be shut down, through which migrants were moved from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia to Libya. From there, they had attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea and land on European shores.