TUNIS (Reuters) – A Tunisian court sentenced former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in absentia yesterday to more than 15 years in prison for illegal possession of drugs and weapons.
Lawyers for Ben Ali, ousted in January and now in Saudi Arabia, boycotted the one-day trial, calling it a sham. The ousted president was handed a 35-year sentence for other crimes including theft last month.
Ben Ali’s overthrow in January after weeks of protests inspired the wave of “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
The judge sentenced Ben Ali to 15 years and six months, adding that the six months had been added for illegal possession of archaeological artifacts. The judge also handed down a fine of 108,000 Tunisian dinars ($79,250).
Ben Ali was convicted of possession of drugs with the intent to sell them and illegal possession of weapons.
At the hearing, one of his lawyers asked the judge for a delay so he could persuade Ben Ali to return to Tunisia to face trial. Judge Touhami Hafian refused to grant the petition.
“In that case we are withdrawing from this hearing, which does not meet the right to a fair trial,” the lawyer said.
The Lebanese law firm representing Ben Ali issued a statement saying that the hearing “violates all the norms of a just trial”.
As the legal team walked out, members of the public yelled: “Get out! You have betrayed Tunisia by defending Ben Ali” and “You should have defended the young people killed by Ben Ali’s weapons!”
The hearing continued without the lawyers present.
One lawyer who is not involved in the case said a rush to judgment would undermine any effort to extradite Ben Ali.
“With this kind of trial, we are missing the chance to bring Ben Ali from Saudi Arabia and are making it more difficult,” Naceur Laouini told reporters.
“A quick trial like this does not win over international opinion.”
In a statement released last month, the former president said the charges were a fabrication. He said the weapons were ceremonial gifts and that the drugs had been planted.
Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi were each given 35 years in prison last month after being found guilty of theft and illegally possession of jewellery and large sums of cash.