- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tunisia accused the United States of interfering in the country’s judicial system after U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray criticized the guilty verdict in the blasphemy trial of a Tunisian television executive.

Mr. Gray also warned that the verdict in the trial of Nabil Karoui, head of the private Nessma TV station, also undermined the reforms for which Tunisians fought last year when they overthrew autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring revolutions.

The Tunisian Foreign Ministry this week said the government is “deeply astonished” by Mr. Gray’s comments, which are posted on the U.S. Embassy’s website, tunisia.usembassy.gov.

A court imposed a fine of $1,700 on the television executive, who had faced a maximum sentence of three years in prison for broadcasting a film that violates a prohibition in Islam with a scene depicting God. His attorney said he will appeal the verdict.

The Foreign Ministry on Monday said: “The Tunisian government expressed deep surprise at the statement of the U.S. ambassador in which he said he was disappointed by the ruling in the Nessma TV case.

“The Tunisian government respects the independence of justice, in accordance with international standards and that the freedom of expression in Tunisia is a legitimate right.”

In his statement, Mr. Gray said the verdict threatened “religious tolerance and freedom of expression.”

“The United States Embassy has been following Nebil Karoui’s trial for blasphemy with great interest, and I am concerned and disappointed by this conviction for Nessma television’s broadcast of an animated film previously approved for distribution by the Tunisian government,” the ambassador said.

“His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia. We understand that Mr. Karoui has the right to appeal his conviction, and we hope this case will be resolved in a manner which guarantees free expression, a basic right denied to Tunisians during the Ben Ali era.”

The TV executive last year broadcast the award-winning 2007 animated film “Persepolis,” which follows the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a little girl.

The film includes a scene that depicts God, which enraged some fundamentalist Muslims who attacked the TV station.

The movie is based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born French writer.

LEAVING PAKISTAN

He has accused the Pakistani government of links to terrorists, criticized official corruption and faced stinging rebukes from the Pakistani press.

Now Ambassador Cameron Munter is preparing to resign after less than two years at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Mr. Munter, a career diplomat, told embassy staff Monday that he will step down this summer, according to reporters in Islamabad who quoted unidentified U.S. sources.

One news story predicted he will be replaced by another professional diplomat, Richard Olson, now a top official at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Mr. Olson had served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until 2011.

Mr. Munter, a former top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and a former ambassador to Serbia, arrived in Islamabad in late October 2010 and immediately created a stir by defending U.S. drone strikes on terrorists inside Pakistan.

The ambassador has served in Pakistan during a tense decline in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The United States angered Pakistan with the drone attacks and with last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in a Pakistani garrison town.

Pakistan outraged Washington by arresting a CIA contractor accused of killing two men in Lahore. Islamabad further crippled relations with the United States by cutting off a NATO supply route to forces in Afghanistan after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border clash in November.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.