Tunisians Voice Unease over Ben Ali Quick Verdict

Tunisian authorities came under fire Tuesday for their high-speed sentencing in absentia of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife to 35 years in jail for embezzling public funds.

The court's quick verdict Monday after only six hours of deliberation on the first day of the landmark trial was dismissed as a "charade" by some Tunisians and a "joke" by a Ben Ali lawyer.

"It is a big disappointment, the kind of charade of summary justice that the dictatorship had accustomed us to," said Mouhieddine Cherbib of a France-based Tunisian rights group.

"We wanted a real trial, a fair one ... a trial of the dictatorship with people who were tortured appearing as witnesses -- a justice system from which you learn something," Cherbib said, adding that high treason would have been a more appropriate charge.

Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi were charged with embezzlement after the discovery of money and jewellery at their palace on the outskirts of Tunis -- the verdict described Tuesday by daily La Presse as "a downpayment of 35 years each".

The ex-president was also fined 50 million dinars ($36 million) and his wife 41 million dinars ($30 million).

Judge Touhami Hafi said the sentences, which exceeded the 20 years that had been widely predicted, would take immediate effect despite the couple living in Saudi Arabia, which has so far ignored Tunisia's demands to extradite Ben Ali.

A second case targeting Ben Ali only, involving weapons and drugs allegedly found in a presidential residence in Carthage, was postponed to June 30 to allow his lawyers more time to prepare.

Ben Ali's lawyer in Beirut denounced the verdict as farcical.

"This is a joke," attorney Akram Azouri told Agence France Presse. "You don't retaliate to a joke. You just laugh."

The former president denies any wrongdoing and in a statement released Monday said he had not intended to go into exile while condemning political developments in Tunisia since the end of his 23-year rule.

"I did not abandon my post as president nor did I flee Tunisia, as some media have falsely reported ... I was duped into leaving Tunis," read a statement released by Azouri.

The trial was only the start of a long process that may see top members of Ben Ali's regime 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 face, 35 will be referred to a military court, said a justice ministry spokesman.

"It will take time," said Kemais Ksila, secretary general of the Tunisian League of Human Rights.

"Justice takes time. We hope not to have a political trial but a normal one that respects procedures," he added.

Monday's conviction was seen as an attempt by the transitional government set up after Ben Ali's departure to show discontented Tunisians that it was accomplishing something.

"This trial is a pretext, a charade to show that they are taking action," said Beatrice Hibou, a senior researcher at the CERI international studies institute in Paris' political studies school Sciences Po, told AFP.

"It reflects the current tension in Tunisia. Tunisia is seeing a power struggle between the social movement and the old system that wants to continue" -- many of the former regime still in the administration and justice system.

Khadija Mohsen-Finan, Maghreb researcher at Universite Paris 8, agreed "it was necessary to convict Ben Ali to give something to the population".

But Tunisian lawyer Chawki Tabib said there was nothing abnormal about the speed of the ruling, and Morocco's penal code allowed it.

Ben Ali -- accompanied by his wife and two children -- left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia in January at the climax of the first of the Arab uprisings.

In Monday's statement, he said he considered himself the victim of a plot that needs him as the "absolute evil" so that Tunisians "are prepared for a new political system created behind their backs by extremists."

His dramatic departure came less than a month after the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor whose protest over unemployment unleashed already-simmering popular anger against Ben Ali.

Source: Agence France Presse

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