x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

One-day trial fails to do justice for Tunisia

Tunisians should not be seeking quick vengeance against their deposed president, rather a prudent legal deliberation.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila were far away yesterday when a court in Tunis sentenced them to 35 years in prison for embezzling and misusing state funds. Since January, when Tunisian protests overthrew his government, the former president and his wife have been in exile in Saudi Arabia.

There is little guarantee that he will serve a day in jail. Meanwhile 10.6 million Tunisians try to restore their economy, of which Mr Ben Ali and his family reportedly controlled as much as 40 per cent.

The conviction, on the day the trial opened, in part fulfils a promise made by the interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi. "No crime will be left unpunished," he said recently. "But Tunisians must be patient."

That is wise counsel. Mr Ben Ali still faces an array of other charges, filed and pending, on issues ranging from illegal possession of antiquities to systematic torture and murder.

That is as it should be. But however compelling the evidence against Mr Ben Ali, it is in Tunisians' interest that it be presented in an orderly, transparent fashion and acted upon by the letter of the law. A one-day trial is no showcase of prudent legal deliberation.

However hotly the flame of vengeance burns in Tunisia, the legal process for Mr Ben Ali and his wife, relatives and cronies is best pursued in a spirit of justice. Ultimately everyone will be better off if the new Tunisia is governed, starting now, under cold-eyed but even-handed law.

Cynics suspect that the early trial and quick verdict were intended to paper over the divisions which have emerged among Tunisians since January. In any case, we hope this judgment, and subsequent trials of the deposed elite on other charges, are not allowed to divert public attention from the pressing problems of the future.

As the first bloom of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has a chance to set a healthy tone, notably for Egypt but also Yemen and even Libya. Trials are important, but October's election of a new constituent assembly, and building a responsive government, are more important.

To be sure, Mr Ben Ali is accused of grave offences. Tunisians still line up daily to report cases of corruption under his regime.

Justice surely must be done. But it must also be seen to be done. Righteous fury will not serve the best interests of Tunisia, or any other country that might look to Tunisia for an example.