Tunisia arrest of UN expert sparks diplomatic row

Tunis (AFP) –


Tunisia's arrest of an expert investigating possible violations of an arms embargo on war-torn Libya has sparked a diplomatic standoff between the North African country and the United Nations.

Moncef Kartas, a member of a UN panel of experts, has been held for five weeks on suspicion of spying for unnamed "foreign parties" -- charges that could carry the death sentence.

The UN insists Kartas has diplomatic immunity and has demanded that authorities reveal the reasons for his detention on arrival in Tunis on March 26.

In mid-April, the world body said Tunisia had "failed to provide an adequate response" in line with its international legal obligations.

On Tuesday, a group of researchers published an open letter in several European newspapers, demanding his immediate release.

"The detention of Moncef Kartas on false grounds and in violation of his immunity raises serious questions about the rule of law in Tunisia," wrote the group of around a hundred academics and researchers.

They said that "not a single piece of evidence" had been released to justify his detention.

Kartas, a Tunisian-German dual national, was appointed in 2016 to a UN panel of experts tasked with investigating possible arms shipments into Libya in violation of an embargo.

Tunisia's neighbour has been plagued by violent chaos since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising.

On April 4, military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an operation to seize the capital Tripoli from the UN-recognised government.

The panel to which Kartas belonged has found that arms and ammunition deliveries continued to reach warring parties despite the UN embargo -- with the involvement of member states.

- Silence over reasons -

On Tuesday, his lawyers submitted an official request for his release.

They noted that a key pillar of the charges against him was that he had "a device giving access to public data on flights of civil and commercial aircraft," his lawyer Sarah Zaafrani said.

Tunisia bans the use of RTL-SDR radio scanners without special permission.

Zaafrani told AFP that Kartas had had the device "only for the purpose of monitoring air traffic to Libya, in order to identify flights that may be linked to violations of the arms embargo".

Tunisian authorities have remained circumspect about the reasons for his arrest.

The prosecution said last month it had issued an arrest warrant over an enquiry into "the acquisition of security information related to the fight against terrorism and the dissemination of this information in violation of the law".

It did not respond to an AFP request for further details.

The interior ministry said it had seized documents containing information that could harm "national security", along with banned communications equipment.

Zaafrani said those questioning Kartas have so far focused on his activities in relation to Libya.

The expert is likely to be held in prison throughout the investigation, which could last several months.

His family say they have had no contact with him since his arrest.

The UN says Kartas has diplomatic immunity unless stripped of it by the world body's secretary general -- but Tunisia has made no such request.

Some suspect he had touched a nerve by trying to identify those responsible for transferring arms to Libya.

"This detention is obstructing the work of a UN panel precisely when it has an important role to play," said Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and a friend of Kartas.

"Fighting is intensifying and there are reports of foreign shipments of weapons," Lacher said.

The arrest sets "a very dangerous precedent for the work of UN panels in other countries," he added.