Tunisian authorities released one of the only men in custody for alleged links to September last year’s attack on the US diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi, the latest blow to an investigation that has limped along for months.
Armed groups assaulted the lightly guarded mission on Sept. 11 and killed US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, but despite US promises there has been little news of progress so far in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Ali Harzi, a 26-year-old Tunisian extradited from Turkey in October, was one of the only people actually detained over the attack and at the time Tunisian authorities said they “strongly suspected” he was involved.
However, on Tuesday his lawyer, Anwar Oued-Ali, said the presiding judge had “conditionally freed” Harzi the night before for lack of evidence. He must remain in Tunis to be available for further questioning.
William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, said while it was very possible that Harzi might have been involved with extremist groups in Benghazi, it was impossible to tell without more efforts from the Libyans.
“If there had been a better investigation in Benghazi, this guy’s role in the whole thing would have been a lot clearer,” he said.
In December, US officials were lamenting the lack of cooperation with the governments of the region, particularly Libya, in their ongoing investigation into the attack, saying most of the suspects remain free.
Mounting a coherent investigation is difficult for Libyan government — especially in Benghazi — because authorities rely on the militias who fought former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and it is often difficult to draw clear lines between those providing security and those causing the instability.
In November, the official in charge of Benghazi security was assassinated and on Sunday the Libyan government announced that the investigator sent to look into his death was himself kidnapped.
“Benghazi is certainly a very bad place to be a police officer,” Lawrence said.
Harzi was one of very few people in custody in relation to the attack, along with Jamal Abu Ahmad, a member of Islamic Jihad arrested in Egypt, according to US officials.
Oued-Ali described the release as “correcting an irregular situation” because authorities never had any real evidence.
Harzi is still officially charged with membership in a terrorist organization — a charge punishable by six to 12 years in prison.
US intelligence has blamed the Benghazi attack on militants who are members of a number of different groups.
They range from the local Libyan militia Ansar al-Shariah, whose members were seen at the US consulate during the attack, to militants with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — al-Qaeda’s leading representative in the African region.
The consulate’s cameras captured many of the faces of armed men in a mob and some have been questioned, but most remain free.
In a recent TV interview, Harzi’s father, Tahar, said his son was just working in Libya in construction supporting his family.
However, in 2005, Ali Harzi and his brother Brahim were sentenced to 30 months in prison for having contact with another brother, Tarek, who fought against coalition forces in Iraq, according to Oued-Ali.