By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian military court sentenced ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's interior minister and 38 other security officials to up to 20 years jail on Thursday over the deaths of protesters during the revolution that launched the Arab Spring.
Former Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem was sentenced to 15 years in jail and Ben Ali's security chief Ali Seriati was given 20 years over the killing of protesters in the capital Tunis and the towns of Sousse, Nabeul, Bizerte and Zaghouan as a popular uprising spread through the country early last year.
The court also sentenced Ben Ali to life imprisonment in absentia, but he fled into exile in Saudi Arabia as protests swept Tunisia on January 14, 2011 and is unlikely to be extradited.
Ahmed Friaa, who was named interior minister shortly before Ben Ali fled, was among three officials who had charges against them dropped.
Many of the officials on trial have already been given jail sentences for various crimes linked to last year's revolution, which toppled Ben Ali and inspired uprisings in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The sentencing provoked stormy protests in the court room, with victims' families enraged at what they saw as light sentences, while the relatives of those convicted were angered by trials they believe to be politically charged and unfair.
Some women wailed and fainted as the verdicts were read out.
"Did we wait a year and a half for this farce?" screamed Saida al-Saifi in the court room.
Carrying a picture of her son, killed in a Tunis suburb in January 2011, she told Reuters: "We will take our rights with our own hands... We will start a war and we will not give up the rights of our children as long as the courts are unfair to us."
Police had to break up a fight between two women, one related to a victim and the other to one of those convicted.
Leila Haddad, a lawyer for the victims, said they would appeal as they considered the sentences too light.
The government has faced criticism for failing to persuade Saudi Arabia to hand over for trial Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whose lavish lifestyle and clique of wealthy relatives many Tunisians saw as symbols of a corrupt era.
Ben Ali has already been sentenced to decades in prison for offences ranging from the deaths of protesters to corruption, but many Tunisians fear he will never be jailed and had hoped his lieutenants would receive the harshest sentences possible.
In June, another Tunisian court sentenced Ben Ali's interior minister and seven of his security chiefs to up to 15 years in jail over the killing of hundreds of protesters in the central towns where the Arab Spring began.
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Tim Pearce)