Tunisia’s Ben Ali gets life sentence in absentia

Tunisia’s Ben Ali gets life sentence in absentia

TUNIS, Tunisia
A military court on June 13 convicted Tunisia’s former dictator in absentia for his role in the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the country’s interior, ordering him to serve life in prison -- the harshest sentence to date in a slew of cases against the ousted president.

Tunisians overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year after a month-long uprising, and he fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011. His fall inspired the Arab Spring revolutionary movements that have since spread across North Africa and the Middle East, the Associated Press.

Tunisia’s uprising began in its hardscrabble interior, and in the first weeks some 20 protesters were shot dead by police in the towns of Kasserine and Thala, the focus of one of two military trials Ben Ali faced in 24 hours. The prosecutor in the case had originally asked for the death penalty, but the judge decided upon life in prison. Former Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem and several more of Ben Ali’s inner circle received sentences of up to 15 years in prison, but other key figures saw their charges dismissed, much to the anger of victims’ families, Agence France-Presse reported.

Earlier, a military court convicted Ben Ali of having ordered security forces to fire on protesters in the town of Ouardanine who were trying to stop the president’s nephew Kais from also fleeing the country. Four people died in that encounter, and the court sentenced Ben Ali to 20 years in prison in the case. The lastest rulings come on top of convictions by civilian courts, where Ben Ali faced charges of drug trafficking, illegal arms trading and abuse of public funds and was sentenced to 66 years in prison. Tunisia has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali so he can face charges in person. At least 338 people died in Tunisia’s uprising, and another 2,147 were wounded.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s government on June 13 blamed Salafists and old regime loyalists for a three-day wave of riots which appears to have been triggered by an art exhibition that included works deemed offensive to Islam.

 One man died and around 100 people were injured, including 65 policemen. A joint statement by the leaders of Tunisia’s government, constituent assembly and presidency condemned “extremist groups who threaten freedoms,” in a thinly-veiled reference to the ultra-conservative Salafists.