Tunisia’s ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali faces new weapons and drug charges in a Tunis court Thursday a week after he was sentenced in absentia to 35 years in jail for embezzling public funds.
The disgraced ex-strongman, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January at the height of a popular uprising, will not be in the dock as Riyadh has so far ignored Tunisia’s demands that he be extradited.
After only six hours of deliberation on June 20, a Tunis court sentenced Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi to 35 years in prison each for misappropriating public funds, after money and jewellery were found at their palace on the outskirts of Tunis.
The judge, Touhami Hafi, also fined Ben Ali 50 million dinars (25 million euros) and his wife 41 million dinars.
But he postponed until Thursday a second case targeting Ben Ali only, involving weapons and drugs allegedly found in the Carthage palace.
The judge said the delay was to allow Ben Ali’s lawyers more time to prepare their defence.
In Thursday’s case, the former president is specifically accused of drug possession and trafficking as well as weapons possession, charges that his Lebanese lawyer has dismissed as fanciful and insulting.
The weapons, says Ben Ali, were for the most part gifts from foreign leaders and he dismisses as a setup the discovery of about two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of drugs in his office after his departure.
His court-appointed lawyer, Abdesattar Messaoudi, said that as on June 20 the verdict in Thursday’s case was likely to be announced on the same day.
“I am more than convinced that the verdict will be announced on that same day. It’s summary justice.”
Messaoudi said Ben Ali could get a 20- to 30-year jail term because of “aggravating circumstances” although he said there were “holes” in what he saw as a “hastiled-mounted” case.
Ben Ali has denied any wrongdoing and through his Paris-based lawyer Jean-Yves Le Borgne said the Tunis court last week “delivered a sentence that is judicially insane but politically opportune.”
Calling his June 20 conviction a “parody of justice” and “political liquidation,” Ben Ali said that 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.”
The alleged ill-gotten gains amassed by the ousted president and his wife during Ben Ali’s 23-year rule have been estimated as being worth about a quarter of Tunisia’s gross national product.
The June 20 trial was the first of many cases expected to be brought against Ben Ali as well as top members of his regime on allegations including murder, torture, money laundering and trafficking of archaeological artefacts.
Of the 93 charges Ben Ali and his inner circle face, 35 are to be referred to a military court, a justice ministry spokesman said.
Many Tunisians and several human rights groups have said more should have been done to secure Ben Ali’S extradition ahead of his trial.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda party, meanwhile dimissed the first trial as a “masquerade” and told AFP that Ben Ali “deserved to get the death sentence for all his crimes against the Tunisian people.”
Ben Ali’s ouster, which touched off an unprecedented wave of similar uprisings in the Arab world, came less than a month after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor whose protest over unemployment unleashed already-simmering popular anger against Ben Ali.