Ex-Tunisian president scorns his trial as parody

The ex-president of Tunisia has denounced his trial and conviction in absentia, calling it a "parody of justice."

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife — both in exile since Jan. 14 — were convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison by the Tunis criminal court. In a statement via his French lawyer, Ben Ali on Tuesday called the proceedings "nonsense judicially but politically expedient."

Ben Ali, 74, flew to Saudi Arabia after a monthlong uprising that sparked protests around the Arab world, putting Tunisia in the avant-garde of an unprecedented pro-democracy movement in the region.

However, the former Tunisian strongman said he had been "tricked" into leaving his homeland.

In a statement via another lawyer in Lebanon, Ben Ali said he had boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia after being advised by his security chief of an assassination plot against him. He said he had planned to return on the same flight after dropping off his family, but the plane's pilot disobeyed orders and took off without him. His manipulated departure was the first act in a plot, aided by a media campaign, to discredit his regime after 23 years in power "and prepare Tunisians to accept a new regime," he said.

Ben Ali's statements this week were his first to the public in the five months since he went into exile. During that time, Tunisia has moved forward under an interim government which has been erasing all traces of Ben Ali's rule, dismantling his all-powerful party and investigating wrongdoings by Ben Ali and the much detested clan of his wife, Leila Trabelsi.

He said in the statement through his French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne, that the trial was a "parody of justice whose only merit was its brevity."

Ben Ali and Trabelsi were convicted of embezzlement and other charges after a treasure trove of jewels and cash were found in a private palace. Besides the 35-year prison terms for each, they were together fined some $64 million.

The court postponed until June 30 a second case centered on guns and drugs found in the official presidential palace in Carthage because public defenders said they needed time to study the file. He claims in his statement that the jewels and weapons were gifts from heads of state and the money and drugs were planted.

A series of other trials is expected. Ben Ali faces 91 other civil cases and 182 that fall under military jurisdiction, some of which could risk the death sentence.

In upcoming trials, he is likely to be asked to account for the deaths of 300 people during the uprisings. In his statement, Ben Ali denied widespread reports that he had ordered security forces to fire real bullets at protesters.

His Lebanese lawyer, Achraf Azoury, condemned Monday's trial as a farce and not in line with international standards of justice.

"The speed at which the trial ... moved is more reminiscent of a Formula 1 Grand Prix race than a court trial," Azoury said in a telephone interview. He added that the proceedings failed to respect international legal treaties to which Tunisia is a signatory, notably because Ben Ali was not allowed to choose the lawyers representing him in court.

Under Tunisian law, his foreign lawyers were not permitted to represent him at the trial.

Tunisians had mixed feelings after Monday's verdict.

Fathi Jaziri, a 49-year-old merchant, said the trial had not "quenched my thirst for justice."

For 29-year-old Mourad Bouzayane, "The verdict has no sense since the former president ... will do neither prison time nor pay a fine."

However, lawyer Mohamed Abbou, an outspoken dissident who spent more than three years in prison under Ben Ali, said the trial was "a message and a lesson for all those in Tunisia and the Arab world who may be tempted in the future to oppress their people."

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Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.