‘World’s most wanted human trafficker’ arrested in Sudan

Eritrean subject of two Interpol red notices caught in ‘international police operation’ led by United Arab Emirates

A notorious human trafficker who has been on the run for almost two years has been apprehended in Sudan.

Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, an Eritrean who was the subject of two Interpol red notices, was caught in a “major international police operation” led by the United Arab Emirates.

In a statement on Thursday, Brig Saeed Abdullah al Suwaidi, head of the UAE’s federal anti-narcotics general directorate, called Habtemariam “the world’s most wanted human trafficker”. In a statement, Interpol said he was believed to have smuggled and trafficked thousands of victims.

Stephen Kavanagh, Interpol’s executive director of police services, said Habtemariam was traced through biometrics because he was crossing borders and “using air travel to go long distances” with fake documents. His brother was also arrested and other family members were being investigated.


Habtemariam has been extradited to the UAE, where he is likely to first be tried on money laundering charges, while other investigations continue.

The Irish Times first reported on Habtemariam in early 2020, shortly after he was last apprehended in Ethiopia, when a former victim recognised him on the street. In interviews, former victims described how he had overseen a system where hundreds of people were held captive in Bani Walid, Libya, and forced to call their families to request huge sums of money. Those who could not raise it were tortured.

Later that year, this reporter and a translator were the only independent observers present for Habtemariam’s trial in Addis Ababa. The following February, 2021, Habtemariam escaped ahead of a court hearing. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.

In October 2021, Habtemariam was put on the Netherlands “most wanted” criminals list. At that time, he was described by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service as “one of the world’s most notorious and cruellest people smugglers”.

“Kidane is the head of a camp in Libya where thousands of migrants are living,” the Dutch notice read. “His victims are subjected to severe beatings, kidnapping, rape, and/or unlawful deprivation of liberty. Many do not survive the journey to Europe.”

Habtemariam was an associate of Tewelde Goitom — also known as Welid — a fellow human smuggler and trafficker arrested in Ethiopia around the same time, and extradited to the Netherlands last October.

International protection

Libya, which has effectively been a failed state since the ousting of Muammar Gadafy in 2011, has long been a transit country for refugees and migrants from across Africa. They are escaping wars, dictatorships, persecution or crushing poverty. Many would have a recognised right to international protection if they could reach Europe, but they have no way to legally travel there.

Refugee advocates argue that smugglers and traffickers across north Africa have been emboldened by a hardening EU migration policy, which has meant the EU funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats of refugees and migrants. More than 112,400 men, women and children have been caught trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2017. They are forced back into a cycle where they can be held captive and repeatedly exploited.

The news of Habtemariam’s arrest comes days after Italy signed in a new legal decree which will make it harder for search-and-rescue charities to conduct rescues in the central Mediterranean, across which many of Habtemariam’s victims were trying to escape. “The real price will be paid by people fleeing … finding themselves in situations of distress,” said Médecins Sans Frontières, which operates a rescue boat there.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa