Tunisia: Ben Ali trial in absentia begins

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (13 December 2010)
Image caption Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's lawyers mounted a defence of his 23 years as president

The trial in absentia of ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has begun, a day after the former leader denied all charges against him.

Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January following a popular rising.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted on charges including corruption and drug trafficking.

His lawyers said the trial was an attempt by Tunisia's interim government to divert attention from their failure to restore stability in the country.

The Saudi authorities have yet to respond to an extradition request from Tunisia for Mr Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and there seems little likelihood of them being brought to justice in person.

'Victor's justice'

The Tunisian authorities have been preparing several legal cases against Mr Ben Ali, but Monday's trial will initially cover charges relating to money, weapons and drugs allegedly left behind in his palaces.

Almost 2kg (4.4lb) of drugs, believed to be cannabis, and $27m (£16.4m; 18.7m euros) in cash were allegedly discovered.

Mr Ben Ali is also being investigated on suspicion of murder, abuse of power, trafficking of archaeological artefacts and money laundering.

Speaking through his Beirut-based lawyers on Sunday, Mr Ben Ali mounted a defence of his 23 years as president, which many Tunisians say was marked by autocratic rule, corruption and human rights abuses.

"He would like everyone to know this criminal prosecution is only a false and shameful image of victor's justice," a statement said.

"Is the purpose behind that [trial] to divert the attention of Tunisians from the turmoil that nobody can accuse him of or hold him responsible for?

"He knows that every new political authority wants to blame its predecessor and hold it responsible for difficulties it fails to resolve."

The 74-year-old's lawyers also said he would soon make an announcement about the circumstances of his departure, which sent shockwaves through the Middle East and North Africa.

"What interests him now is to stress that he did not flee at all. He wanted to avoid a bloody confrontation among the Tunisian people who are always in his thoughts and heart," the statement said.

It also appealed to Tunisians not to forget Mr Ben Ali's achievements.

"He hopes from his heart that Tunisia escapes chaos and darkness and continues on its path towards modernity," the statement said