The lawyer for a man from Liverpool mistakenly apprehended in the Netherlands on suspicion of being a notorious Sicilian mafia boss and the world’s most-wanted fugitive mobster, is calling for the Italian authorities to withdraw the execution of an arrest warrant against him.
Last Wednesday, around 5pm, a 54-year-old British man, identified by his lawyer as Mark L, was cuffed while he was having a meal in a restaurant in The Hague by heavily armed police who pulled a hood over his head and dragged him out in front of dozens of terrified customers, according to media reports.
The arrest came after Italy allegedly asked the Dutch authorities for the execution of an international arrest warrant, believing that the man was the number one mafia fugitive, Matteo Messina Denaro, who has been in hiding since 1993.
“It was a nightmare and could have happened to me or you – and, this time, it just so happened to be him,” the man’s lawyer, Leon van Kleef, told the Guardian. “When they told me he had been arrested because he was believed to be Matteo Messina Denaro, I thought they were joking. I mean, my client was born and raised in England and has an incredibly strong Liverpool accent. It was obvious from the start that there was a misunderstanding.”
Van Kleef said that the man, a British Formula One fan, had travelled to Holland to attend the Dutch Grand Prix the previous weekend in Zandvoort and that he had stayed in The Hague for a few more days. The man was arrested while eating in a restaurant, in the centre of The Hague, called Het Pleidooi (the Plea), which is located about two miles from the international court for justice.
According to media reports, the Dutch prosecutors carried out the arrest at the specific request of the Italian authorities. After his capture at the restaurant, the police took the man to Vught maximum security prison.
“When my client’s wife, who was initially worried, realised it was a misunderstanding and that her husband had been arrested under the accusation of being Matteo Messina Denaro, she couldn’t stop laughing,” Kleef said.
The man remained in prison until last Saturday, while his identity was checked by Italian authorities.
Kleef also asked to have the DNA of Mark L and his family tested, but the Dutch allegedly authorities found it was not necessary. After three days, Mark L was released after Dutch prosecutors said in a statement that ‘‘the man arrested, earlier this week, in a Hague restaurant, is not the man sought by Italian authorities.’’
“If they say ‘arrest this person’, we arrest that person. That’s the mutual agreement we have with them,” an official told the NOS public broadcaster.
But despite the man being freed, his case remains formally still open, as the Italians have not yet withdrawn the request for the execution of the European arrest warrant.
Kleef has called the Italian authorities to immediately withdraw the arrest warrant’s execution, in order “to close this story as soon as possible.”
Asked whether his client would seek compensation, Kleef said: “They will look into it.”
Matteo Messina Denaro, nicknamed ‘‘Diabolik’’, was once considered a candidate to be the Sicilian mafia’s boss of bosses, after the deaths of Bernardo Provenzano, in 2016, and Salvatore Riina, in 2017.
Denaro, 59, who once infamously claimed: “I filled a cemetery, all by myself,” has apparently kept up his luxurious lifestyle, thanks to his several bankrollers who, according to prosecutors, include politicians and businessmen.
Investigators have long claimed that the boss, wanted for more than 50 murders, is being shielded by powerful Freemasons in Trapani. Not having any recent photos of the boss, the Italian authorities tried to reconstruct his appearance digitally.
Last August, the Italian public TV broadcaster Rai released a recording, dating back to March 1993, in which the voice of Matteo Messina Denaro was identified for the first time during a trial in which he was called to testify. After a few weeks, the boss fled and has not been found since.
He was convicted and sentenced in absentia in 2002 to life in jail for having personally killed or ordered the murder of dozens of people.
Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor did not respond to a request for comment at time of publication.