Ben Ali trial set to begin

2011-06-17 16:02

Tunis - Tunisia on Monday begins trying in absentia ex-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, five months after he fled to Saudi Arabia, amid calls for him to be extradited to take the stand.

A criminal court in the capital will begin hearing the first of about 93 cases brought against the authoritarian ruler, ousted on January 14 in a popular uprising that inspired others still rocking the Arab world.

The first charges against Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi arise from the discovery of millions of dollars and jewellery in a palace at Sidi Bou Said, near Tunis.

Ben Ali also faces charges related to drugs and weapons found in a palace in Carthage.

Conviction on these allegations is punishable by five to 20 years in prison, but other allegations of murder and torture - to be dealt with later by a military court - carry the death penalty.

Saudi Arabia has responded to requests from the interim Tunisian government for the 74-year-old's extradition.

Many Tunisians are pleased the alleged crimes of the once-powerful couple will be examined in court but others say their trial in absentia is merely intended to appease demands for justice and change months after the uprising.

"This trial is nonsense, it is just for show. It is meant to calm the mood and not to uncover the truth," said Hamma Hammami, head of the Tunisian Communist Worker's Party.

"The authorities should have started by judging the symbols of the dictatorship and corruption, which are Ben Ali's advisors and ministers, while waiting for international pressure to extradite him," he told AFP.

"There are other cases more pressing than to judge Ben Ali in absentia: the sanitisation of the media, the judicial system and the security apparatus."

Low profile

But Slah Jourchi, vice president of the Human Rights League and spokesperson of an inquiry into corruption and abuse of power under the previous regime, said the trial held "psychological and political weight".

Tunisians are "thirsty to know the truth and to see the ex-president made accountable to the people", he said.

Although the former strongman may succeed in staying out of jail, the trial could at least show Ben Ali "that the page has not been turned and he will be prosecuted in Tunisia and even at the international level", Jourchi said.

Two lawyers have been appointed to defend Ben Ali and his wife in the trials to begin on Monday relating to cash, weapons and drugs.

Of the 93 charges being prepared against him and his circle, 35 will be referred to a military court, said justice ministry spokesperson  Kadhem Zine el Abidine (no relation to the ousted president).

They mainly concern allegations of murder, torture, money laundering and trafficking of archaeological artefacts.

Tunisian authorities have not said who else in Ben Ali's entourage would come before the military courts.

Ben Ali has kept a low profile since his escape to Saudi Arabia ended his 23 years in power, with a relative saying in February that he was in a coma after a stroke.

He however surfaced recently to denounce, through a French lawyer, the proceedings against him as a "masquerade".