Tunisia's ex-president to be tried in absentia

AP News
Posted: Jun 14, 2011 3:27 PM
Tunisia's ex-president to be tried in absentia

Tunisia's deposed president will be tried in absentia next week on charges of embezzlement and drug trafficking, an official said Tuesday.

The June 20 trial _ the first of many for a range of charges _ will be open to the public, said Justice Ministry spokesman Kadhem Zine El Abidine. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali could face between five to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years until a monthlong popular uprising forced him to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.

There are 93 counts pending against the former president, including plotting against the security of the state, murder, abuse of power, embezzlement, money laundering and drug trafficking.

Tunsia's requests to Saudi Arabia for his extradition remain unanswered, said Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in an interview with the Arabic Al-Jazeera news channel late Monday where he announced the new trial date.

Military tribunals will handle 27 of the counts, including homicide, which would carry the death penalty, said the ministry spokesman, adding that an announcement about the military tribunal will be made next week.

The initial trials will focus on the large quantities of drugs and weapons found in the presidential palace of Carthage, north of Tunis, as well as an estimated $27 million (euro18.69 million) in jewelry and foreign currency found in another palace at Sidi Bousaid, just a few kilometers (miles) away.

Ben Ali is currently represented by a French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne. The Justice Ministry spokesman said, however, that while the law allows for foreign defense lawyers accompanied by a Tunisian colleague, that condition does not hold for trials in absentia.

Le Borgne, in a statement last week, said Ben Ali was "fed up with this role of scapegoat based on lies and injustice" and that the former president had broken his silence to debunk the allegations against him.

The statement said Ben Ali alleged the raids of offices were "staged to discredit him" and that the trial was "a mascarade whose only aim is to illustrate a symbolic break from the past."

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron hand for more than two decades, dealing ruthlessly with internal dissent and presiding over a docile press and token political parties.

Since his departure, however, there has been an explosion of political activity with elections to choose an assembly to write a new constitution set for October.

The Tunisian uprising inspired the populations of the Middle East and set off a series of pro-reform movements that has been collectively named the "Arab Spring."

Egypt, which overthrow its ruler a month after Tunisia, has announced that ex-President Hosni Mubarak, his family and close associates will also stand trial on charges of corruption and murder.