A court case stemming from a trove of cash, arms and drugs begins, with deposed Tunisian president still in Saudi Arabia.
A Tunisian court on Monday sentenced ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, in absentia, to 35 years in jail each after finding them guilty of theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewellery.
Reading out the verdict and sentence in the courtroom after just one day of deliberation, the judge also ruled Ben Ali and his wife would have to pay fines totalling $65.6 million.
The judge said the verdict on other charges, relating to illegal possession of drugs and weapons, would be pronounced on June 30, according to the Reuters news agency.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 in the face of a popular uprising against his 23-year rule and is being tried in absentia by a criminal court over scores of cases against him and his entourage.
Akram Azoury, a Ben Ali lawyer who is based in Beirut, said earlier that his client “strongly denies all charges they are trying to press as he never possessed the sums of money they claimed to have found in his office”.
Others criticised the process, arguing it did not go far enough in answering the calls for justice from the Tunisian people.
“It’s not satisfying,” Zied Cherni, a Tunisian lawyer, told Al Jazeera. “President Zine al Abadine Ben Ali has obstructed justice when he governed Tunisia, and right now he is manipulating the truth. He has many, many agents here.”
“You have to ask, why are they sentencing him right now?” he said, noting the broader political context in the North African country. “There’s a shadow government, which is right now trying to manipulate and to mislead the Tunisian people.”
Drugs and weapons
Ben Ali, the first leader toppled in a wave of Arab uprisings, faces charges related to theft, drugs and weapons, following the reported discovery of around $27m in jewels and cash plus drugs and weapons at two palaces outside Tunis.
More serious charges, including plotting against the security of the state and murder, will be dealt with at future trials.
Monday’s session is only the beginning of a long legal process that may see senior members of Ben Ali’s government in the dock over allegations including murder, torture, money laundering and trafficking of archaeological artifacts.
Of the 93 charges Ben Ali and his inner circle now face, 35 will be referred to the military court, Kadhem Zine El Abidine, a justice ministry spokesperson, said.
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 a French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne, cannot take part in the proceedings.
In the statement released by Le Borgne, Ben Ali “vigorously denies” accusations against him, 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”.
Ben Ali said in the statement: “I devoted my life to my country and aspire, at the twilight of my existence, to conserve my honour.”
Backed by his powerful party that controlled all sectors, Ben Ali governed with an iron fist, suppressing dissent and quashing all freedom of expression.
Saudi Arabia has not responded to an extradition request, and some Tunisians expressed frustration that Ben Ali would not be present for his judgement.