The former president, living in exile in Saudi Arabia, faces charges of voluntary manslaughter and drug trafficking.
|Along with his wife’s family, the Trabelsi clan, Ben Ali amassed a fortune worth a quarter of the Tunisian economy [AFP]|
Tunisia’s deposed president went on trial in absentia on Monday in the first of what will likely be a long series of court proceedings five months after he went into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14.
The Tunis Criminal Court is hearing two embezzlement, money laundering and drug-trafficking cases against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after approximately $27m in jewels and cash were discovered in two of his palaces outside Tunis.
Tunisian drugs officials had earlier said that almost 2kg of narcotics, thought to be cannabis, and $27m in cash and weapons were discovered at those locations.
Ben Ali, 74, has vigorously denied the charges in a statement through his French lawyer, calling the proceedings a “shameful masquerade of the justice of the victorious”.
Several European countries have also frozen assets belonging to Ben Ali and his entourage.
Several leaked US diplomatic cables, released earlier this year, highlighted the depth of economic corruption and control at the hands of Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family.
‘Insatiable animal bent’
William Hudson, the US ambassador to Tunisia, wrote that despite “increasingly liberal economic legislation” Ben Ali and all of his extended family have carve[d] out domains in virtually every important sector of the Tunisian economy. .. People are now convinced that the First Family is an insatiable economic animal bent on gratuitous enrichment and unchecked influence-wielding”.
Five public defenders have been assigned to Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, who is accused in one of the two cases in Monday’s trial.
Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, judicial officials say, meaning French lawyer Jean-Yves Le Borgne cannot take part in proceedings.
Saudi Arabia did not respond to an extradition request, and some Tunisians expressed frustration that he would not be present for his judgment. A verdict could come later on Monday.
Ben Ali and his wife are charged in the discovery of a trove of valuable jewels and cash in Tunisian and foreign currency at a palace in a village north of Tunis. Images of the cache shown on TV after the discovery shocked
Footage from Tunisian news shows safes packed with cash and stacks of jewelry cases filled with jewelry hidden behind mirrors and bookcases in one of Ben Ali’s palaces.
The second case surrounds the seizure of arms and drugs at the official presidential palace in Carthage during a search by a commission investigating abuse of authority formed after Ben Ali’s departure.
If convicted, Ben Ali faces five to 20 years in prison for each offense. More serious charges, including plotting against the security of the state and murder, will be dealt with at future trials. Judicial authorities say
that Ben Ali and his entourage are implicated in 93 civil cases and 182 others that fall under military jurisdiction.
‘Absurd and defamatory’
In the statement released by Le Borgne, Ben Ali said he never had huge sums of money and claiming most of the weapons found were gifts from visiting heads of state.
“As for the drugs allegedly found, that is a lie and an ignominy … It is absurd and defamatory,” the statement from the lawyer said. The trial has “no goal but to accuse yesterday’s president.”
“I devoted my life to my country and aspire, at the twilight of my existence, to conserve my honor,” Ben Ali said in the statement.
Backed by his powerful party that controlled all sectors, Ben Ali governed with an iron fist for 23 years by suppressing all dissent.
Ben Ali’s regime unraveled with a monthlong uprising around the country triggered by the fatal self-immolation of an unemployed man in the rural heartland. That sparked protests that moved through the countryside to Tunis, the capital, and failed to die down despite concessions from the president.