Waiting for Eritrean human traffickers’ trials in the Netherlands

A year and six months after a string of arrests of human traffickers accused of holding families living in the Netherlands to ransom, Dutch courts are making slow progress towards trials. Our correspondent attended the latest hearings at the Court of Zwolle, eagerly followed by the Eritrean community, which the defendants come from.

Between Eritrea and the Netherlands, the nightmare of migrants who are victims of human trafficking. Photo: A migrant in a detention centre in Tripoli, Libya, stands with one hand on his cheek, almost appearing to be asleep.
A migrant pictured in a crowded room at the Tariq Al-Matar detention centre on the outskirts of the Libyan capital Tripoli on November 27, 2017 - a often obligatory passage on the route of human trafficking networks to Europe. Photo: © Taha Jawashi / AFP
5 min 19Approximate reading time

On April 16, the judge in the Dutch court of Zwolle was about to decide whether the trial would start in absentia. The indictment is ready, but alleged Eritrean trafficker Zekarias Habtemariam Kidane is still in custody in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which the Netherlands asked last year to extradite him. The man is accused of being part of a human trafficking network involved in money extortion.

The matter discussed at the hearing was a missing signature. Earlier this year, the prosecutor sent a summons to the UAE, where Kidane faces another court case for money laundering. But to date, his signature – and official proof that he received it – is still missing. After a brief deliberation, the judge decided that he could not be sure the 40-year-old defendant was aware of his rights and the trial could not start.

The provincial courtroom was filled up with over 30 people, including journalists, Eritrean NGO observers and a handful of academics. “Every communication with the UAE takes up to six months,” Prosecutor Petra Hoekstra told the court. Abu Dhabi, she said, gave no recent update on the Dutch extradition request. Kidane, described by Dutch police as “one of the most notorious and cruel human smugglers in the world”, has been held there since January 2023, when he was finally arrested in Sudan after escaping Ethiopian justice in 2021.

Extorsion of families living in the Netherlands

On the same day, the court of Zwolle also discussed the case of another Eritrean trafficker, Tewelde Goitom, also known as Amanuel Welid. Both suspects, Kidane and Welid, were previously convicted in Ethiopia for human trafficking. They belong to the same criminal organisation, says the prosecutor who wants their cases to be handled together. She also summoned five other people located in the Netherlands, suspected of taking part in the extortions.

Welid was extradited from Ethiopia to the Netherlands in October 2022, on accusation of participating in a criminal organisation involved in human smuggling, hostage-taking, extortion and sexual violence. The charges span from 2014 to 2020. Most of the victims are migrants from Eritrea who travelled to the Netherlands. The prosecutor outlined how during the journey, migrants were locked up in camps in Libya, abused, tortured and in some cases killed. To free them, families in the Netherlands had to pay large sums of money. The preliminary hearings in his case have been going on since January 2023.

Welid did not come to the hearing. His defence lawyer Simcha Plas told the judges she was concerned about the length of the proceedings, especially if they were to become dependent on those of Kidane. “Welid has already been in pre-trial detention for a long time,” she told the court. Kidane was called by the defence as one of its witnesses, and the court discussed whether his testimony could be collected online or in person.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 4. According to Brechtje Van De Moosdijk, press officer of the Public Prosecutor Service, the case will be heard on the merits “not before early 2025”.

“Getting the truth about the trafficking network”

“I am happy about this court procedure and that victims can get justice,” comments Tadese Teklebrhan, an Eritrean man living in the Netherlands and chair of the Dutch foundation Eritrean Human Rights Defenders (EHRD). Like some of the plaintiffs in the case, he came to the Netherlands through the Welid’s network in 2015. He is not a party to the case but has been following the hearings closely. “We don’t have any justice in Eritrea, so this is my first experience in court.”

His colleague at EHRD Hadish Mebrahtu, who also runs the organisation Mahber Selam that helps Eritrean refugees settle in the Netherlands, thinks this trial is about “getting the truth about the trafficking network”. Civilians in Eritrea have a hard time following the case, said Mebrahtu. But he thinks the Eritrean regime is well aware of this Dutch trial. He and Teklebrhan hope this case will just be a starting point. Welid and Kidane “are not the main root of the trafficking problem, the root is in the government of Eritrea,” says Teklebrhan. 

Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki. His party is the only party, there is no free press nor free speech, and the national military service is mandatory and can last indefinitely. 

“The Eritrean government is so tightly controlled”, explains Mirjam van Reisen, professor of International Relations at Tilburg University, who has been following the proceedings. It would be hard for a “criminal organisation to operate outside the knowledge or the consent of the government”, she adds. She has been studying the Eritrean human trafficking network since 2010. Van Reisen’s studies have documented the links between the defence and intelligence officials of the regime and the gang of Welid and Kidane, who came to a leading position “under collusion and collaboration of the Eritrean government”. According to the researcher, the government also controls the hawala, an informal money transfer system that is used to extort large sums from the families of migrants.

A highly lucrative ransom system

In 2023, Van Reisen and three colleagues published “Enslaved”, a book in which they mapped the ransom system. To free their loved ones from Libyan detention centres, families can pay up to 10,000 US dollars, the authors explain. These sums reached 40,000 USD in the Sinai region of Egypt, where Eritrean migrants fled starting in 2009. They estimate that “between 2016 and 2021, around 114,000 Eritreans submitted a first-time asylum application in Europe” – half of the 205,000 migrants and refugees held in captivity in Libya in that period. The ransoms paid by “Eritreans alone is estimated at USD 1 billion”.  “These are very conservative estimates,” Van Reisen told Justice Info. 

To pay for the ransoms, families are forced to collect loans from various members of the community. “That’s such a strain on the community because people have all of these scores to settle,” says Van Reisen. Mebrahtu agrees and talks about his experience asking the victims about their hopes for the trials. Some people expect financial compensation, he says, as “they collected for the families, and they still have to pay back but it is really hard”.

Hawala agents and financial debts make the life of Eritreans in Europe less safe. “The traffickers and the regime have a network in the Netherlands, so people are still not feeling free,” said Teklebrhan. Last year, the Dutch news broadcaster NOS reported that a group of Eritreans accused Welid of trying to influence witnesses via phone calls from his prison. He was then moved to another detention centre and placed under intensive supervision.

International cooperation

The cases of Welid and six other suspects stem from a joint international cooperation team set up in 2018 involving judicial and police authorities in Italy and the Netherlands, together with the United Kingdom, Spain, Europol, and since 2022 the International Criminal Court (ICC). Europol and Interpol also joined the investigations. They focus on tackling trafficking and crimes against migrants in Libya.

The Netherlands could move forward on this case because of the large number of Eritreans in the country, who stated how money was extorted from them by Welid’s network. The prosecutor said he heard dozens of witnesses in the Welid case. However, at the start of April, the Dutch news service NRC reported that Frontex has restricted the exchange of information with investigators, as a result of a new stricter interpretation of privacy rules. It was received with disappointment by the Dutch prosecutors, for whom the data collected by Frontex have been crucial for their investigations on human trafficking.

This trial shows that “there is no indefinite impunity”, says Van Reisen. But drawing from her research, she highlighted other crimes that she hopes will receive more attention in the future: “Sexual violence-related crimes, they are horrendous and very, very difficult because women are so traumatised and men as well; and the killings, many people die”. As these widespread attacks against a civilian population may also be charged as crimes against humanity, she hopes they will be prosecuted as such before the ICC and national courts.

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