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165 U.N. Workers Missing or Detained, 10 Killed

December 4, 1990

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ One day in 1979, Bismillah Kamkai was taken from his U.N. Development Program office in Kabul, Afghanistan, under armed guard. He was never heard from again.

Belay Melake, an Ethiopian statistician working for a U.N. economic agency in Addis Ababa, disappeared more than 11 years ago. His colleagues believe his government tortured and killed him.

British journalist Alec Collett was abducted south of Beirut in 1985 while on assignment for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees. In 1986, his kidnappers claimed to have killed him in retaliation for the U.S. air raid on Libya, but no body was found.

U.N. staff members say 10 of their colleagues have been killed, including Kamkai and Melake. Collett is among 165 listed as missing or detained around the world.

Ninety-nine of those detained are Arab relief workers held by Israeli authorities in the occupied Gaza Strip or West Bank, according to the U.N. employee union.

Much attention has focused on Western hostages in the Middle East, but little has been paid to the scores of detained U.N. employees. Most are low- level employees of relief and development agencies who are citizens of the countries where they work.

″These people are working for the world community and it’s surprising that there’s not more compassion,″ said Lori Berliner, who for a decade has led a committee of international civil servants pressing for the release of those detained. ″We worry about staff being forgotten.″

Israel accuses the Arab U.N. workers it holds of ″subversive activities,″ said Lowell Flanders, president of the U.N. staff union. But he added, ″They’re not terrorists.″ Many were teachers, guards or drivers in Palestinian refugee camps.

About 20 governments or organizations have been accused of killing U.N. employees or detaining them illegally. Flanders described Ethiopia as one of the most serious offenders because of reports the government has tortured and killed prisoners.

He said he had independent reports that Ghennet Mebrahtu, a widow with two children employed by the World Health Organization in Addis Ababa, had been tortured since her arrest in August.

An Ethiopian delegate told a U.N. committee in November that Mrs. Mebrahtu was arrested for activities ″not consistent″ with her U.N. duties and would be tried soon. He did not elaborate.

The U.N. staff union insists U.N. workers be afforded due process: open hearings, written charges and the right to legal counsel, as provided for in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar has demanded repeatedly that the rights of U.N. staff members be respected.

″At a time when the organization is being called upon to undertake greater responsibilities in various parts of the world, it is totally unacceptable that ... staff members are subjected to arbitrary or unexplained detention, abduction, or even have their lives placed at risk,″ he said recently.

U.N. committees and member states also have said the matter is urgent, but the staff union wants action.

It has demanded a halt to all U.N. activities, except for humanitarian aid, in any country that illegally detains U.N. workers. U.N. officials and delegates say there is little chance of that.

Mahmoud Tarjouman, a Syrian arrested by his government in 1976 before he could begin work for a U.N. economic commission in Lebanon, said the United Nations did not work for his release during nine years of imprisonment.

No U.N. official ever contacted his wife, and his salary was stopped after 1 1/2 years, Tarjouman said.

He said his support for multiparty democracy may have caused his arrest by President Hafez Assad’s government.

Tarjouman was neither charged or tried, and returned to the United Nations after his release. He now works as an editor in New York and U.N. officials are considering his request for back pay.

U.N. workers accept that their duties involve risk, Flanders said, ″but at the same time, they expect that if they do encounter difficulties, the organization would support them.″

Reasons for detentions are many.

Some U.N. workers simply were caught up in unrest. Among the 10 believed slain are Fernando Olivares-Mori and Carmelo Soria Espinosa, seized in the 1970s in Chile under the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Some may have been victims of attempts to frustrate U.N. activity. In 1987-1989, the communist government of Nicolai Ceausescu refused to let a professor working for the United Nations leave Romania to report on human rights.

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