x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

23 Ben Ali associates on trial in Tunisia

The 23 were arrested and found to be in possession of a large sum in foreign currency as they tried to flee the country on January 14, the day Ben Ali and his wife fled into exile in Saudi Arabia after a weeks-long popular revolt.

TUNIS // Almost two dozen allies of the ousted Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, appeared before a Tunis court yesterday for trying to flee the country in January in illegal possession of foreign currency.

They include Ali Seriati, Ben Ali's former security chief, and Imed Trabelsi, Trabelsi's nephew and one of the most reviled men from the former ruling clan.

Mr Seriati headed Ben Ali's feared presidential guard which supervised all other security agencies.

A total of 35 people are facing charges but only the 23 Ben Ali associates arrested in January appeared before the court yesterday.

Fourteen men, in handcuffs, and nine women, wearing white full-length robes, entered the tiny courtroom which was packed with journalists and lawyers.

The 23 were arrested and found to be in possession of a large sum in foreign currency as they tried to flee the country on January 14, the day Ben Ali and his wife fled into exile in Saudi Arabia after a weeks-long popular revolt.

Mr Seriati, who is suspected of having planned a series of attacks aimed at fanning nationwide chaos, told the court that fake passports were made at the presidential palace specifically for Ben Ali's immediate family.

The 23 defendants have all been held at the Aouina military base in Tunis since their arrest.

"You tried to flee the country on January 14 in possession of foreign currency and jewels," the court president, Faouzi Jbelli, said, before reading out the charges.

Mr Trabelsi, wearing a white polo shirt, rejected the charges, denied that he tried to flee the country and said the money in his possession came from "legal activities".

The prosecution said Mr Trabelsi, who was already sentenced to four years in jail in June for drug possession, had 36 watches and five kilograms of jewellery when he was nabbed at the airport.

Another co-defendant, Moncef Trabelsi, was caught with US$2,400 (Dh8,800) and €17,500 (Dh93,000).

Since his escape to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali has already been twice convicted and sentenced in trials held in his absence.

On July 4, a Tunis court sentenced him to more than 15 years in jail for possession of arms, drugs and archaeological artefacts.

In June, Ben Ali and his wife were sentenced to 35 years in prison and fined €45 million for misappropriating public funds after police found large sums of cash and jewellery in their palace.