ZWOLLE, Netherlands (CN) — Prosecutors in the Netherlands told a Dutch court on Tuesday that an Eritrean man convinced hundreds of his fellow countrymen to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe then held them for ransom in camps in Libya.
Wearing a worn black and grey tracksuit, the 38-year-old Tewelde Goitom, also known as Amanuel Gebreyesus Negash Walid, denied he had ever used violence against people.
“Only chickens,” he told the court in the northeastern Dutch city of Zwolle, speaking through an interpreter.
Dutch authorities have charged Goitom with running a human trafficking operation, bringing migrants from Northern Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Goitom was convicted of similar crimes in Ethiopia in 2021 before being extradited to the Netherlands.
Prosecutors claim Goitom was working together with another Eritrean man, Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates last week. Habtemariam was on Interpol’s red list, referred to as “the world’s most wanted” human smuggler.
Eritreans in the Netherlands reported being forced to pay thousands of dollars to get their relatives out of camps in Libya. The Dutch government has charged Goitom with being a member of a criminal organization, finding hundreds of victims in the Netherlands who were allegedly extorted by his operation. Eighteen victims are named in the indictment.
In her opening remarks, prosecutor Petra Hoekstra described families in the Netherlands receiving phone calls from relatives who begged them to send money while the screams of torture victims could be heard in the background. A United Nations report found that some 20 camps are in operation in Libya, describing them as “places of terrible and systematic abuse.”
Gerben Wilbrink of the Netherlands Public Prosecutions Office told Courthouse News after the hearing that the International Criminal Court, Italy, Europol and Interpol worked on the investigation together.
“Real people are suffering and dying,” he said.
Goitom’s lawyer Richard van der Weide told the court he plans to challenge the jurisdiction of the case and has requested further investigation into the identity of his client, suggesting the wrong man was charged. He thinks the prosecution overstepped in charging his client with running a criminal operation on the basis of a few extortion claims.
“It’s a stretch,” van der Weide told Courthouse News after the hearing.
According to the U.N., more than 200,000 Africans have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014. Thousands die every year and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees describes the situation as a “widespread, longstanding and largely overlooked tragedy.”
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