According to investigators, the most wanted human trafficker in the world is back in prison after more than two years on the run. The Eritrean Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam was arrested on Sunday in a police operation carried out by several states in cooperation with Interpol in Sudan, Said Abdullah al-Suwaidi, a senior official at the Interior Ministry of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said on Thursday. Habtemariam is the mastermind of a criminal network that has kidnapped and defrauded hundreds of East African migrants attempting to travel to Europe, according to a joint statement by the UAE's Interior Ministry and Interpol.
Accordingly, there were two alerts from Interpol against him – i.e. requests for arrest or provisional arrest with the aim of extradition. "We stopped one of the most important human trafficking routes to Europe, which led thousands of migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan to Europe via Libya," said UAE interior ministry spokesman al-Suwaidi, according to the statement.
Habtemariam was arrested in Ethiopia in 2020 but escaped from prison a year later. According to the statement by the UAE Ministry of the Interior and Interpol, he was later sentenced there in absentia to life imprisonment.
Stephen Kavanagh, Interpol's executive director for police services, confirmed that Habtemariam was the "most wanted" criminal in the Netherlands, Ethiopia, but also in several other countries. According to Interpol, he has been on the radar of the international police organization since 2019. He has a reputation for being "particularly cruel and violent against migrants".
With the support of Interpol, the Emirates investigated the Habtemariams criminal network and its money flows. According to the representative of the UAE Ministry of the Interior, this made it possible to locate the suspected smuggler in Sudan, where he was arrested on January 1 by local police officers in cooperation with the UAE authorities.
The arrest is "a positive example for the Interpol network" and "of what can be achieved when countries work together," said Interpol Executive Director Kavanagh.
Habtemariam is now on trial in the UAE for money laundering. Authorities would consider extradition as soon as the case there was over, al-Suwaidi said. The Eritrean's arrest is "just the beginning" of the hunt for the rest of Habtemariam's network. The UAE is currently investigating with Interpol the possibility of opening an investigation into another significant suspected human trafficker.