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The troubling detention of UN investigator Moncef Kartas in Tunisia

AFP | Moncef Kartas, the UN investigator detained in Tunisia

More and more voices are rising to demand the release of Moncef Kartas, a UN investigator arrested in Tunisia five weeks ago while there to investigate arms trafficking in neighbouring Libya.

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Moncef Kartas, a member of a UN panel investigating violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, was arrested on March 26 when he arrived at the Tunis airport, and he remains in custody. The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior said that the expert, a German-Tunisian dual national, and another Tunisian arrested at the same time were suspected "of espionage for the benefit of foreign parties". The ministry provided no further details.

On April 11, a Tunisian judge extended Kartas’ detention within the framework of an investigation into "the acquisition of security information related to the fight against terrorism and the dissemination of this information in violation of the law". Kartas is being detained despite having diplomatic immunity.

In a statement dated April 28, Kartas’ family in Germany said they have not had direct contact with him since his detention. "His health has so far not been impacted, but the conditions of his detention are unacceptable,” they said. “All those who know Moncef Kartas are convinced that he is not guilty of any offense but that this is a politically motivated action".

A hundred researchers sign a petition for his release

On May 1, roughly 100 weapons experts, researchers and academics from German, French and American universities and organizations published an open letter in The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel newspapers calling for the release of the UN investigator. "No evidence has been presented for the alleged cooperation of Dr. Kartas with foreign states or their associates in the betrayal of secrets related to the Tunisian national security," they wrote. "The detention of Dr. Kartas on spurious grounds, and in violation of his immunity, raises serious questions over the state of the rule of law in Tunisia," they added.

The letter’s signatories called on the United Nations and the German government "to condemn the actions of the Tunisian government and to undertake all efforts to secure his immediate release.”

Dr. Wolfram Lacher, a researcher specializing in Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who worked with Kartas at the Small Arms Survey (SAS) between 2013 and 2015, was one of those who initiated the letter. "According to our information, there is no significant evidence supporting the accusations against Moncef, so obviously we suspect that hidden political motives are behind his arrest. It remains to be seen what they are,” he told FRANCE 24.

"We decided to launch this petition because it is time to obtain his release and to increase the pressure on the Tunisian authorities. We held back for a month to allow time for diplomatic channels to do their work, but due to the lack of results we are taking action," he added.

In the letter, the signatories claim that Kartas’ detention is "a direct impediment to the work of the committee, having occurred at the same time that the panel of experts is preparing its interim report.”

Timing trouble

Lacher notes that the arrest of his former colleague also took place just before the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, launched his April offensive to conquer the Libyan capital of Tripoli. "The Kartas case occurred a few days before fighting resumed in Libya, just as a new cycle of external interference in the Libyan conflict was beginning, and therefore at the very moment when Kartas’ panel was absolutely crucial in documenting what is going on,” Lacher said. “And we have a lot of reliable information that points to new arms deliveries to the country." Various foreign powers are suspected of providing military or logistical support to different rival forces in Libya, including those of Haftar.

The UN, which is asking for further clarification from Tunis, expressed its "serious concern" on April 13 after the arrest and detention of its expert. According to the UN, Kartas’ diplomatic immunity can be revoked by the Secretary-General only at the request of Tunis, which has not taken any steps in that direction.

German diplomats have tried to obtain consular access to Kartas in vain. "The diplomatic channels are sometimes quite slow, and this applies in the case of Moncef at the United Nations and Germany," Lacher lamented. He described his former colleague, who holds a doctorate in international relations from the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development (IHEID) in Geneva and with whom he had regular contacts until his arrest, as "a man of very high ethical and professional standards, recognized by many people as a very important expert on security issues, particularly in Libya and Tunisia".

Rumors and malicious accusations

On April 30 Kartas’ Tunisian lawyers filed a request for his release, citing the lack of evidence supporting the charges against him, one of the main elements of which is that he had "a device giving access to public data of flights of civil and commercial aircraft," his lawyer Sarah Zaafrani told AFP.

However, this device, a RTL-SDR, subject to authorization in Tunisia, was used "only for the surveillance of air traffic to Libya, to identify the flights likely to be linked to violations of the arms embargo," she explained. The researcher's lawyers fear that the Tunisian judiciary will keep their client in prison for the duration of the investigation, which can last several months, knowing also that espionage is a crime punishable by the death penalty in Tunisia.

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