A controversial letter written in 2019 by a Norwegian diplomat who is now a leading United Nations envoy in the Middle East, vouching for an Israeli billionaire’s role in the release of a Norwegian-British citizen sentenced to death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was recently published by The Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv/DN).
The diplomat, Tor Wennesland, 68, was named UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process in late December. He succeeded Nickolay Mladenov, a Bulgarian, whose term had ended. The post includes the role of envoy to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority as well as to the Mideast Quartet. Wennesland had been his own country’s envoy to the Middle East peace process. In his new job, he reports to the Security Council, which he addressed in January. His experience in the region goes back to 1994, when he worked for his government during the lead-up to the Oslo accords. He was Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority from 2007 to 2011 and ambassador to Egypt and Libya from 2012 to 2015.
The story of the conviction of the Norwegian-British citizen, Joshua French, traces back to 2009, when he was sentenced to death by a Congolese military tribunal for murdering his hired Congolese driver, Abedi Kasongo. A business partner of French’s, Tjostolv Moland, was also convicted and sentenced to death for the killing. Complicating matters, Moland died in the Congolese prison he shared with French in 2013. (French was convicted for Moland’s murder, but a Norwegian forensic pathologist and Kripos, the criminal investigation arm of the Norwegan police, concluded that Moland was not killed, and Norwegian coroners said the cause of death was suicide.)
Enter Dan Gertler, the infamous Israeli businessman, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, according to Forbes. He was the beneficiary of the recently surfaced letter written by Wennesland, dated Dec. 12, 2019, and published in the Oslo-based DN.
In 2017, Gertler was sanctioned by the United States under the Magnitsky Act. The Treasury Department wrote at the time:
“Dan Gertler (Gertler) is an international businessman and billionaire who has amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Gertler has used his close friendship with DRC President Joseph Kabila to act as a middleman for mining asset sales in the DRC, requiring some multinational companies to go through Gertler to do business with the Congolese state. As a result, between 2010 and 2012 alone, the DRC reportedly lost over $1.36 billion in revenues from the underpricing of mining assets that were sold to offshore companies linked to Gertler.
“The failure of the DRC to publish the full details of one of the sales prompted the International Monetary Fund to halt loans to the DRC totaling $225 million. In 2013, Gertler sold to the DRC government for $150 million the rights to an oil block that Gertler purchased from the government for just $500,000, a loss of $149.5 million in potential revenue. Gertler has acted for or on behalf of Kabila, helping Kabila organize offshore leasing companies.”
The US sanctions were eased against Gertler in January 2021 by the Trump administration in its final days in the White House. But the Biden administration said it was looking into the matter. [Update: On March 9, the US government reimposed the sanctions against Gertler.]
Wennesland’s letter was addressed “to whom it may concern” and written when he worked as Norway’s Middle East envoy. In the letter, he says he first contacted Gertler in early 2014 to seek “advice and possible assistance” for the release of French from prison in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. Wennesland was Norway’s ambassador to Egypt and Libya in 2014 but was on special assignment by his government. Gertler, he wrote in the letter, “personally facilitated very important direct contacts with President Josef Kabila crucial for the resolution” of the French murder case.
French, who had formerly served in the Norwegian military and trained as a paratrooper in the British Army, was working as a private security contractor with Moland when they were arrested in the Congo in May 2009. French was soon convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery, the formation of a criminal association and espionage for Norway, of which he and Moland were found guilty and sentenced to death. Instead of facing capital punishment, they languished in prison. In 2014, French was convicted of murdering Moland.
French was released in 2017, after serving eight years in prison, and returned to Norway. Norwegian legal experts called the “theatrical trial” an extortion attempt by the Congolese government, according to Wikipedia’s account of the story.
Gertler played a crucial role, according to Wennesland’s letter, in French’s release. “I am confident, that without the continued effort of Mr. Gertler up until the time of the release of Mr. French, the outcome of this case could have been different. I know that Mr. Gertler did this for humanitarian reasons, and based on a promise and a commitment to help resolving the issue, a promise he honored to the last moment up until the successful closure of the case,” Wennesland wrote.
“Mr. Gertler provided his assistance to Mr. French and his family without ever asking for any compensation or services in return,” he added. He also said in his letter that it was written “in my personal capacity,” but it features the letterhead of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A spokesperson for the Norwegian ministry told DN that it was not an official document, and that the letterhead should not have been used. The ministry is following up on the matter with Wennesland, it told DN. [Update: On Feb. 17, DN reported that Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Soreide confidentially informed the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Storting, or upper legislative body, the news about the Wennesland letter. It emerged that in 2019, Wennesland asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send the letter to Gertler. He was told by Foreign Minister Tore Hattrem at the time that it was not in Norway’s interest, but Wennesland sent it anyway. Sources say that Wennesland will not likely be reprimanded for his actions because he is not on the government’s payroll and that when his UN term ends, he will not return to the foreign ministery because he will have hit retirement age, 68.]
Wennesland publicly apologized in an op-ed, published by DN on Feb. 12, 2021, for having written the letter, saying that in hindsight it seemed “inexperienced” to send private letters using the letterhead of the ministry. Wennesland added that the same applied to writing private letters about ministry cases.
“This is something you do not do,” Mr. Wennesland wrote, saying that this is something that he, “of all,” should have “reflexively avoided.” He said he “apologizes this to the MFA without reservation.”
Wennesland’s apology was not his original reaction to his letter being published by DN, and he declined to say why he wrote the letter. In its first article on the matter, DN quoted Wennesland as saying: “I am involved in a number and have been involved in a number of cases in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I will not say anything about how we have handled and how I have handled these matters. As simple as that. I never do that. Some of these matters here are of course of such a nature that they shall not be public.”
Gertler used the letter in September 2020 to respond to more accusations of corruption. The subcommittee on human rights in the European Parliament received an email from him after it held a meeting on the situation in Congo in August 2020. Two reports had been put to the committee. One contended that evidence existed that Gertler was trying to dodge US sanctions using a suspected money-laundering network. The other report, concerning victims of corruption in the Congo, also mentioned Gertler several times.
Gertler wrote to the committee, rejecting the accusations in the reports, DN says, in an email marked “private and confidential.” He called the allegations from one organization, Global Witness, “completely false and very damaging to my reputation.” Gertler asked the committee to look at several documents that he said explained his role in peace efforts in the Congo. One document was the 2019 letter from Wennesland.
“In 2014, I played a significant role in securing the release on humanitarian grounds of Joshua French, a British-Norwegian national who spent eight years in appalling conditions under sentence of death in the DRC before he was released and returned home on humanitarian grounds. A letter from Tor Wennesland, Middle East Envoy is attached, which summarises the role I played,” Gertler wrote.
Wennesland concluded in his own 2019 letter about Gertler, “For his services rendered, I will remain forever grateful.”
This article was update on Feb. 20 with new information regarding the foreign ministry and Wennesland’s letter.