CAIRO // The former Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was sentenced in absentia yesterday to 20 years in prison for his role in inciting violence as thousands of Tunisians rose up against his rule in January last year.
State media said the verdict, which was handed down at dawn by a Tunisian military court, was the latest in a series of convictions against Ben Ali, who remains in Saudi Arabia and is unlikely to be extradited to serve his sentences.
Ben Ali's conviction was for an incident the day after he left the country on January 14, last year when security forces fired on protesters in Ouardanine, killing four. At least 338 people died in the uprising and 2,147 were wounded.
Although the sentence for the one-time leader is largely symbolic, Amna Guellali, of Human Rights Watch, said the court also sentenced four security officers for involvement in the deaths of protesters.
She said it was a welcome sign that security forces were now held more accountable than they were under Ben Ali.
"It is very positive, despite some flaws in the trial," Ms Guellali said.
However, she also said that the ruling comes as the postrevolutionary government of Tunisia, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has responded in a "worrying" way to a riot sparked by religious objections to an art fair.
A curfew was ordered in eight governorates after almost 48 hours of rioting was sparked by a group of conservative Muslims, identified by officials as Salafists, who on Sunday night destroyed several artworks they deemed blasphemous at a gallery in Tunis.
Tunisian media reported that 127 people were arrested, and that the interior ministry attributed the violence to criminals and Salafists.
One 22-year-old man was reported by state media to have been killed by a shot to the head in clashes between police and groups of Salafists in the city of Sousse, and 100 people were reportedly injured nationwide.
Following the curfew and deployment riot police, the situation yesterday was tense but violence had largely ebbed.
Rights campaigners, artists and the largely liberal online community of Tunisia raised concerns that the government was moving to respond to the chaos by criminalising controversial art.
A joint statement issued yesterday by the government, constituent assembly and the president condemned extremist groups for threatening freedoms, but also said that, "attacks on religion do not stem from freedom of expression".
Ms Guellali said that "the blame is shifting a little bit from the perpetrators to the artists, which is obviously very worrying in terms of freedom of expression".