Reuters International

Medhanie Yehdego Mered (C), 35, is pictured with Italian policemen as they land at Palermo airport, Italy, following his arrest in Khartoum, Sudan, in this picture released on June 8, 2016 by Italian Police Department. Italian Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

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By Wladimir Pantaleone

PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - An Eritrean man extradited to Italy from Sudan last week and accused of being a human-trafficking boss will have to stay in jail, a judge in Palermo ruled on Tuesday.

British and Italian authorities, who joined forces in the deportation, hailed it as a rare victory in the fight against smuggling, but the man's lawyer, family and friends said it was a case of mistaken identity.

The Palermo judge rejected a request from lawyer Michele Calantropo to release the man from jail or give him a lighter punishment, according to a court document seen by Reuters.

Investigators had said they arrested Medhanie Yehdego Mered, known as "the General," in a network that smuggled migrants by boat to Europe. Calantropo said, however, that his client was actually named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe and was innocent.

In the document, the judge said the defense's request for release, based entirely on the defendant's testimony, did not supersede the "numerous" elements which cast suspicion on him.

Italy has jurisdiction in the case because it was the first point of arrival for most of the thousands of migrants Mered's gang is accused of having trafficked, but this case required three-way cooperation with Britain and Sudan.

The Palermo judge rejected the defense's argument that the arrest in a Khartoum coffee shop was invalid because the warrant should have been translated into a language other than English.

Writing to the judge on Tuesday to recommend that the man not be released, Sicilian prosecutors said the evidence strongly pointed to the man in custody being Mered or at least a person who committed the crimes in the arrest warrant for him.

They said telephone intercepts used to track his movements picked up conversations about illegal people trafficking.

One of the telephone numbers mentioned in the prosecutors' letter as being used to communicate about trafficking matched one given to Reuters by Berhe's family before the ruling.

Berhe's family had also said he often talked to friends and family using Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber messaging services.

Prosecutors said they had intercepted messages on the Viber service, which uses a customer's phone number to identify them, as part of the investigation.

In one conversation, a person using a Viber profile used by the arrested man is asked about Ermias Ghermay - an Ethiopian fugitive who Italian prosecutors have already named as a fellow smuggling kingpin - and says Ghermay is in Mexico.

In another exchange, a person using the arrested man's Viber profile is addressed as "Boss," and asked how he can contact Ghermay.

The investigation and tests on the phone records are ongoing. No formal date has been set for the next hearing.

(Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Alan Crosby)

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