- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
The first of several likely trials for former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kicked off today in a Tunis criminal court. He’s charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and drug trafficking (police allegedly found about 4.5 pounds of cannabis when they searched his palace). Ben Ali, the first leader to fall during the Arab Spring, fled with his family to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. He has not returned to Tunisia and is being tried in absentia on charges that could net him up to 20 years in prison. What have we learned today so far?
1. There’s still plenty of anger, six months after the revolution.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse and disrupted the proceeding on several occasions, chanting, “How long will he be allowed to flee?” They want Ben Ali extradited from Saudi Arabia. And the AFP reports that one protester inside the courtroom was escorted out after an outburst. Tunisia’s press has welcomed the trial. The Tunis-Hebdo newspaper said, “For the first time in our long history, a president-come bloody and predatory dictator will be judged.”
2. The Tunisian press has blossomed since Ben Ali’s ouster.
See the previous bit of writing. Needless to say, the press was kept on a much tighter leash under Ben Ali’s reign. But now, the Interior Ministry is encouraging reporters to pursue factual journalism. And, according to the Africa Review magazine, more than 70 media companies have applied for licenses in the capital Tunis since the revolution.
3. The rules you help create can sometimes come back to bite you.
Ben Ali was being defended by a team of public defenders and not his French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, Al Jazeera reports. His Tunisian legal team asked the judge for a postponement of the trial. They said they needed more time to prepare a defense.
4. We’re learning more about how “The Family” really worked.
The Wall Street Journal examined the court papers filed against Ben Ali and interviewed a number of investigators working on the case. It found that the levels of corruption were far greater than thought. “Administrators who are freezing assets of more than 100 Ben Ali family members say they are uncovering an economic network so vast that untangling it too quickly could disrupt Tunisia further,” according to the paper. “Instead of closing down businesses owned by Mr. Ben Ali’s relatives, for example, authorities are in most cases allowing them to operate under court-appointed managers.”
Meanwhile, the judge today detailed what investigators found when they searched the presidential palace and private residence. In addition to the illegal drugs, there was also 43 million Tunisian dinars ($31 million) in cash, as well as jewelry, arms, and archeological artifacts — all obtained illegally, according to the judge.
5. Ben Ali thinks he’s still president.
In a statement released today, Ben Ali gave his first account of the events that led him to flee. He said he only flew to Saudi Arabia after being persuaded by presidential security that his life and the lives of his family members were in danger, based on information about an assassination attempt supposedly passed along by “friendly” foreign intelligence services. His plan, he said, was to fly his wife and children to safety but then return immediately. The plane, however, returned to Tunisia without him, contrary to his orders, he said. “He did not leave his post as president of the republic and hasn’t fled Tunisia as he was falsely accused of doing,” the statement said.