Africa, Elections, Middle East, Top Stories

Lobbyist says he got US to press Tunisia for presidential candidate’s release

A former lobbyist for a presidential candidate in Tunisia claims to have gotten the US government to press for his client’s release during last year’s election.

Ari Ben-Menashe told the Department of Justice in a new filing that he had “secured” the release of media tycoon Nabil Karoui “in cooperation with US agencies.” Karoui was arrested on Aug. 23 on tax fraud charges and released from jail on Oct. 9, four days before the run-off (Karoui ended up losing the election to Kais Saied, the current president).

In a phone interview today, Ben-Menashe declined to identify which US agencies were allegedly involved in pressing for Karoui’s release, citing confidentiality concerns. But he said the US had been determined to see a viable election in the fledgling democracy.

“They wanted to see some sort of election go ahead,” Ben-Menashe told Foreign Lobby Report.

Dickens & Madson filing with the US Department of Justice

In a previous filing with the Department of Justice, Ben-Menashe said his Canada-based firm, Dickens & Madson, “provided guidance with respect to the policies and objectives of the United States concerning the Tunisian election.” This work reportedly included maintaining “regular, ongoing telephone communications with the United States government in order to advise Karoui, but not for the purpose of altering United States policies.”

The State Department in an emailed statement said that the US government had “urged” Tunisian authorities to “respect the rule of law and adhere to its established electoral processes about the election.”

“The US supports the democratic process in Tunisia. The United States does not take a position on individual candidates,” a State Department spokesperson said. “Matters of justice are internal to Tunisia. The legal proceedings surrounding Nabil Karoui’s case were wholly Tunisian government decisions and were not made in coordination with the US government.”

The State Department previously noted concerns over Karoui’s arrest in its annual report on international human rights practices released in March 2020.

“International observers expressed concern that the arrest and detention of one of the presidential candidates, Nabil Karoui, denied him an equal opportunity to campaign for both the presidential and parliamentary elections, a right guaranteed by the electoral law,” the report said. “Although Karoui was released prior to the October 13 elections and appeared in a televised debate with his opponent Kais Saied on October 11, international observers expressed concern that the timing of his detention and release appeared, on the surface, to be politically motivated, or at least influenced by the electoral calendar.”

The Tunisian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The United States urged the Government of Tunisia to respect the rule of law and adhere to its established electoral processes.”

State Department spokesperson

Ben-Menashe’s allegations are the latest controversy in an unusual lobbying deal that created a political uproar in Tunisia when it was first revealed last fall.

The $1 million contract with Dickens & Madson was signed just days before Karoui’s arrest. The firm was initially hired to lobby the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations in view of “attaining the presidency of the Republic of Tunisia.” After Karoui’s arrest, Ben-Menashe told Foreign Lobby Report, the focus changed to getting him out of jail.

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News of the contract triggered complaints that Karoui was breaking the law by seeking foreign influence in a Tunisian election. Karoui for his part has denied ever hiring Ben-Menashe.

The denials have upset Ben-Menashe, who says he was questioned by Department of Justice lawyers about his relationship with Karoui.

“We keep on getting calls from all kinds of people about Karoui and Tunisia,” he told Foreign Lobby Report. “It was important to clarify some of the things that happened there that we could talk about publicly.”

Ben-Menashe said he only received $250,000 of the $1 million Karoui owes him: $150,000 from the candidate’s wife, Salwa Smaoui, and $100,000 from one Salim Hamdadou. Ben-Menashe identified Hamdadou as an Algerian living in Montreal who helped broker the deal with Karoui.