Lawyers walk out of Ben Ali's trial

2011-07-04 13:49

Tunis - The second trial of Tunisia's former president opened dramatically on Monday with the court-appointed defence lawyers walking out after their request for a postponement was denied.

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after a month long popular uprising against his rule. He is now being tried in absentia by the new government for a range of crimes, including corruption, embezzlement and ordering the death of protesters.

Ben Ali has foreign attorneys, but Tunisian law says lawyers from other countries cannot represent clients being tried in absentia. As a result, the former president is being represented by court-appointed defenders Hosni Beji and Bechir Mahfoudhi.

As they left the court, the lawyers were booed by onlookers, who shouted they should resign.

"Good riddance, you would have done better defending the victims of Ben Ali rather than be the lawyers for a torturer," said Ali Laayouni, a young unemployed graduate from the centre of the country where the rebellion first broke out.

Ben Ali's fall inspired similar pro-democracy uprisings against the region's autocratic rulers that is now being called the "Arab Spring."

Monday's trial on charges of gunrunning and drug smuggling has already been delayed twice, first until June 30 at the request of defence attorneys who said they needed more time to study the file. It was delayed again due to a lawyers' strike.

Guns and drugs

It is the second of some 93 civil cases being brought against the president and his hated family and centres on guns and drugs found in the official presidential palace in Carthage.

On June 20, he and his wife were convicted of embezzlement and other charges and sentenced to 35 years in prison and fined $64m.

Ben Ali claimed in a statement that the jewels and weapons were gifts from heads of state and the money and drugs were planted.

In addition to the civil cases, there are another 182 counts that fall under military jurisdiction, some of which could risk the death sentence, including his role in the deaths of 300 people during the uprisings.

Ben Ali's foreign attorneys have dismissed the trials as rigged and part of a campaign to demonise the former president at the behest of Tunisia's new rulers.

"Today's trial, like the past verdict and the 93 trials announced is judicially nonexistent because it violates practically every criteria for a fair trial," said Akram Azoury, Ben Ali's Lebanese lawyer, in a statement.

Saudi Arabia has not responded to Tunisia's requests to extradite Ben Ali.