UN demands release of UN expert from ‘illegal detention’ in Tunisia

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Article Summary
UN expert Moncef Kartas, who is being detained in Tunisia, was charged with treason and espionage and could face the death sentence if found guilty, prompting the UN to call for his release.

During a press conference in New York on May 16, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric called for the “immediate release and dropping charges against" UN expert Moncef Kartas.

Speaking to Univers News on May 16, one of Kartas' defense lawyers, Sarah Zaafrani, stated she is “convinced [Kartas'] case has taken a political turn."

On World Press Freedom Day on May 2, UN resident coordinator in Tunisia Diego Zorrilla urged Tunisian authorities “to free UN expert Moncef Kartas and return the technical equipment he had in his possession when he was arrested.”

Zorrilla told the Tunisia Africa Press news agency (TAP) that Moncef Kartas, who holds both Tunisian and German citizenships, is being “illegally detained.”

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On the same day, a German Federal Foreign Office spokesperson told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that German authorities have sent yet another “verbal note” to the Tunisian authorities “in order to get consular access to Kartas and further information on the case.”

Kartas’ defense lawyers who spoke with Al-Monitor said it was only on May 7 that the Judge of Instruction (who was not identified for the protection of Kartas) granted visiting rights to representatives from the German Embassy to visit Kartas in prison that same day.

These developments follow the publication April 30 of an open letter addressed to the Tunisian government demanding the immediate release of Kartas. The letter was authored by his legal team and family and signed by some 107 academics, experts on Libya and weapons, and leading disarmament nongovernmental organizations. Many of the signatories are colleagues of Kartas, who works in Tunisia and has been a member of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya since 2016, researching the illegal trading of arms into Libya, including traffic across Tunisia’s borders.

Kartas’ ordeal began on the evening of March 26 when 12 members of Tunisia’s security forces arrested him on his way out of the Tunis-Carthage International Airport after a flight from Rome that was paid for by the UN. Kartas was apparently using his Tunisian rather than his German passport.

His arrest came a few days ahead of the Arab Summit held in Tunis on March 31, where Kartas was due to deliver a paper outlining multiple breaches of the UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya by Turkey and Qatar via Tunisia in 2013. This paper could have had serious implications for members of the Tunisian Troika government, which was in power during that time in 2013.

Libya has been under an arms embargo since 2011; the embargo was renewed in 2018.

The real sticking point in Kartas’ case has been Tunisia’s refusal to respect the 1946 Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, which Tunisia signed in 1957. Spokesperson for Tunisia's judicial counterterrorism division Sofien Sliti told TAP news agency on March 30 that Kartas “cannot benefit from immunity insofar as the case involves personal benefits.”

Sliti’s statement seems to have created a diplomatic impasse between the UN and the Tunisian state. A UN spokesman had condemned the arrest of Kartas on March 29, saying Tunisia failed to abide by its obligations set in the 1946 convention.

However, during his visit to Tunis March 31 to attend the Arab Summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ remained silent on Kartas’ case.

On April 11, Kartas was officially charged with espionage and treason by the Court for Anti-Terrorism in Charguia, Tunis.

Following the official charging of Kartas, Dujarric issued a statement April 12 stating, “Mr. Kartas is an expert on mission for the UN and enjoys specific privileges and immunities under Article VI, Section 22 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN,” adding that “the procedure for addressing his immunity is clearly spelled out in the convention.” Dujarric described Kartas’ arrest as “a matter of very grave concern.”

During the initial four days of his custody, Kartas was interrogated without the presence of his lawyer — which is contrary to Tunisian law — and without the presence of a translator as Kartas only speaks basic Tunisian Arabic, a former work colleague wishing to remain anonymous confirmed to Al-Monitor.

Human Rights Watch denounced this on March 28, with researcher Amna Guellali quoting Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, as saying, “Tunisia should immediately explain its shocking detention of Moncef Kartas” and “at a minimum grant him immediate access to his lawyers.”

Meanwhile, UN requests for access to Kartas were refused. Zaafrani told Al-Monitor that only a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees team was allowed access to Kartas on April 12. “The team saw him again on April 12 in prison, but it was then refused further visits despite numerous attempts,” she said.

Head of Tunisia's National Institute for the Prevention of Torture Fathay Jarray confirmed to Al-Monitor that although Kartas had not been physically tortured, he had endured some “psychological pressures.”

Kartas now finds himself on trial for treason and espionage under Article 60 of the Tunisian Penal Code, charges which — under Tunisian law — carry the death sentence. It should be noted, however, that Tunisia has not carried out an execution since 1991.

Zaafrani told Al-Monitor there is no evidence and the file “is empty.” Her other main concern is that the wheels of justice may be grinding deliberately slowly. She said the judge “doesn’t want to close the file quickly.”

She said that in Tunisian law a judge can take a maximum of 16 months to deliberate before returning a judgment; if he fails to do so, the Judge of Instruction presiding over the case is obliged to release him.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sliti confirmed that Kartas’ case is “under review by the Judge of Instruction” but could not comment as to whether there is a deadline for a decision.

Kartas has remained in the notorious Mornaguia Prison, where those charged under the counterterrorism law are imprisoned.

Zaafrani said Kartas’ health is beginning to deteriorate, and she is concerned his health might worsen if he remains in prison over the summer when temperatures can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) as he only has one kidney as a result of a childhood accident. And now that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun, Kartas no longer has access to drinking water during the fasting hours.

Zaafrani’s concerns were corroborated by Mohieddine Lagha, a member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights who regularly inspects prisons. Lagha told Al-Monitor, “The general [prison] conditions [accommodation, sanitation, infrastructure, etc.] remain dismal, particularly healthwise.”

The Tunisian state has remained markedly tacit on the Kartas case with only statements regarding his arrest and later his charge — since then, there has been silence. Meanwhile, Tunisian media has indulged in a trial by media, with reports striking a decidedly nationalistic tone and provoking Tunisians’ deeply rooted paranoias about “national security.”

Zaafrani is certain that Kartas’ arrest is a direct result of the nature of his work since authorities have had full access to his phone and laptop and his work has been the focus of interrogations. Certainly, the timing of his arrest ahead of the Arab Summit and before the offensive launched by leader of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army Gen. Khalifa Hifter on Tripoli seems significant.

“His arrest sets a dangerous precedent,” Farrah Hawana, a lecturer of International Politics and Security at Aberystwyth University in Wales and signatory to the open letter, told Al-Monitor.

According to Hawana, the ramifications of Kartas’ arrest on international efforts to reduce armed conflict are very serious. “It is quite a risky moment for multilateral efforts on arms control.”

Given that Tunisia is suffering from severe economic fragility, deep political tensions, civil discontent and is the direct neighbor of war-torn Libya, it is difficult to understand why the government has chosen to make such a provocative move — which effectively undermines UN authority — and also to block diplomatic dialogue with the German Embassy when Germany is its third top trading partner and has invested heavily in Tunisia. If Tunisia does not capitulate in this situation, it might jeopardize other international negotiations such as the new free trade agreement with the European Union that has yet to be settled.

Germany has said very little publicly, apart from the abovementioned statement regarding demands for consular access to Kartas. But the German Federal Foreign Office spokesperson told Al-Monitor, “The embassy is in close and high-level contact both with the UN and Tunisian authorities.”

Meanwhile, on May 3, Dujarric announced that Tunisian authorities provided the UN with documents regarding the legal processes against Kartas. “However, our position remains unchanged [regarding UN staff immunity] … and he should be immediately released until the matter is resolved,” he added.

Up to this point, the diplomatic process has been discreet. According to Zaafrani, the UN has informed Kartas’ defense team that the diplomatic process will take some time but that they will continue to support Kartas so he must be patient.

Zaafrani said to Al-Monitor that during their sole visit to see Kartas in Mornaguia Prison, the German Embassy team working on his case had outlined their plan of diplomatic work to gain his freedom. When Kartas relayed this to her, Zaafrani's impression was that this process must proceed strictly from one step to the next and that trying to rush matters would derail the whole diplomatic process and risk Moncef's release.

As delicate as the diplomatic process appears to be, questions must be asked about Tunisia’s accountability and cooperation with the UN in the longer term. Hawana said, “If Tunisia faces no repercussions or consequences for violating its international obligations, then how or why would we expect any other country to respect the diplomatic privilege of the UN Panel of Experts anywhere?"

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Elizia Volkmann is a journalist and filmmaker based in Tunis. She covers North Africa as a freelance reporter for online and broadcast media, including Al Jazeera, the BBC and EuroNews, focusing on politics, human rights, economic development, clandestine economy and crime.

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