TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisia's deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader toppled in a wave of Arab uprisings, went on trial in his absence on Monday, accused of plundering the country among other charges.
The former strongman who denies any wrongdoing faces charges related to theft, drugs and weapons offenses and is to be tried in connection with some 93 cases against him and his entourage.
He could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the charges.
As a packed court room waited for the trial to begin, a man was evacuated after screaming angry outbursts, an AFP reporter observed.
About 50 people assembled outside the court room building, some in support of the trial others deploring the absence of the former president.
"What are they putting on trial? Air? This makes no sense," said Mohamed Salah Zaalouni, a waiter who works opposite the criminal court.
Several newspapers dubbed the trial as historic on Monday.
"For the first time in our long history, a president-come bloody and predatory dictator will be judged," said Tunis-Hebdo.
Monday's trial is only the beginning of a long legal 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 artefacts.
Specifically, Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi are accused of stealing public funds, accusations based on the highly publicised discovery of money and expensive jewellery in their palace in the outskirts of Tunis.
Ben Ali "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," his Beirut-based lawyer Akram Azoury said on Sunday.
Of the 93 charges Ben Ali and his inner circle face, 35 will be referred to the military court, justice ministry spokesman Kadhem Zine El Abidine has said.
A murder or torture conviction by the military court carries the death penalty.
Military justice system chief, Colonel Major Marwane Bouguerra, said former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem may find himself named in cases linked to 300 civilian deaths in protests between December 17-January 14.
Ben Ali -- accompanied by his wife and two of his children -- fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia in January where he has remained ever since.
The self-immolation in December of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor who was complaining of unemployment, unleashed already-simmering popular anger against Ben Ali, his family and his entourage which led to the departure of the president.
A source close to Ben Ali told AFP that the 74-year-old is currently in the Red Sea city of Jeddah with his wife, his daughter Halima, 18, and his son Mohammed Zine El Abidine, 6.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has said the kingdom gave refuge to Ben Ali on condition that he would not use it as a base to conduct political activities.
In a statement released by Ben Ali Sunday said he "hopes with all his heart that Tunisia will overcome its current chaos and darkness and continue its path to progress."