FBI questions Tunisian man over Benghazi consulate attack

This file photo taken on September 11, 2012 shows a vehicle and the surrounding area engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US mission compound in Benghazi. (AFP Photo)
A Tunisian man has been questioned by the FBI in connection with the September 11 bombing of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed four diplomats. After months of failed attempts, he was examined as a "witness" – without legal counsel.

­Ali Harzi was extradited to Tunisia after being arrested in Turkey in October, under strong suspicion of involvement in the terrorist attack in which US Ambassador Christopher Stephens was killed.

He had since refused to be questioned by the FBI without the presence of his lawyer.

"They wanted to interrogate him as a witness, but he has refused," his lawyer Abdelbasset Ben Mbarek explained to AFP, adding that authorities attempted to question him "in secret" without his lawyers.

Fadhel Saihi, an advisor to the Tunisian Justice Ministry, told AFP that Tunisian authorities are cooperating with the US investigation.

However delays with the questioning of Hazri have led to calls for sanctions in the U.S.

In early December Republican representative Frank Wolf urged Congress and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to cut off financial aid to Tunisia until it allowed the FBI to interview Hazri. Tunisia has received over $320 million in US aid since January 2011.

After months of wrangling, the Tunisian court allowed three FBI agents to question Hazri before a judge and through a Moroccan interpreter. Hazri's legal counsel was not allowed to be present, on the basis that he was being questioned as a "witness" and not a defendant.

Nevertheless, Hazri was charged for "membership of a terrorist organisation" under Tunisian law, which he denies.

Hazri was also questioned about the attack on the US Embassy in Tunisia, reported AP.

The September 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is believed to have been carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, a militant Islamist group with strong ties to Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, the investigation in Libya has made little progress.

Several days later, the US Embassy in the Tunisian capital of Tunis was also attacked by a mob, which destroyed property and a nearby American school. Four people were killed in the attacks which were carried out by a local group, also calling itself Ansar al-Sharia.

Ansar al-Sharia was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US Department of State and the United Nations Al Qa'ida Sanctions Committee on October 4.

The Obama Administration has faced repeated criticisms over its investigation of the Benghazi attack, after a report by the Accountability Review Board blamed the US State Department for inadequate security measures at the consulate. The report cited systematic mismanagement that left the Benghazi diplomatic mission vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Following the release of the report, the US State Department's security chief and two other senior officials tendered their resignations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to be questioned by a Senate committee on the attack, but her appearance was cancelled due to health issues.