x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

As trial starts, former Tunisian president Ben Ali claims he was tricked into leaving country

Hundreds gather outside Tunis courthouse to demand his return as Ben Ali and his wife are charged in absentia with theft and illegally possessing arms, jewellery, cash, drugs and weapons.

A man holds a poster reading 'Wanted for Dictatorship' and showing deposed Tunisian president Zine el Abidine ben Ali as he stands outside the court house yesterday during the opening of the trial of Ben Ali and his wife Leila in Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP Photo
A man holds a poster reading 'Wanted for Dictatorship' and showing deposed Tunisian president Zine el Abidine ben Ali as he stands outside the court house yesterday during the opening of the trial of Ben Ali and his wife Leila in Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP Photo

TUNIS // Tunisia's toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali said in a statement released by his lawyers yesterday that he was tricked into leaving the country six months ago, setting the stage for a revolution that inspired the Arab Spring rippling across the region.

Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, after mass protests against 23 years of rule in which he, his wife and their family built stakes in the country's biggest businesses and accumulated vast fortunes at what Tunisians say was their expense.

A Tunisian court began trying Mr Ben Ali and his wife in absentia on charges of theft and illegally possessing arms, jewellery, cash, drugs and weapons.

Hundreds of protesters stood outside the courtroom demanding that Mr Ben Ali, 74, be brought back to Tunisia. His trial will be watched closely in Egypt, where former president Hosni Mubarak is due to stand trial over the killing of protesters.

In a statement issued by his lawyers, Mr Ben Ali gave his first detailed account of the events leading to his departure.

At the time, thousands of protesters had gathered in the centre of the capital, Tunis to demand that he step down, the culmination of three weeks of demonstrations which police tried to disperse by firing on the crowds.

The statement said the head of presidential security had come to Mr Ben Ali in his office and told him "friendly" foreign intelligence services had passed on information about a plot to assassinate the president.

He was persuaded to get on a plane that was taking his wife and children to safety in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but with the intention of returning immediately, the statement said.

"He boarded the plane with his family after ordering the crew to wait for him in Jeddah. But after his arrival in Jeddah, the plane returned to Tunisia, without waiting for him, contrary to his orders.

"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.

Mr Ben Ali's version of events is unlikely to elicit sympathy from the majority of Tunisians. They are now enjoying relative freedom after decades when most people would not speak openly for fear of arrest by the secret police.

Yesterday's trial is likely to shed light on the belief widely held in Tunisia that Mr Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, and members of their family had enriched themselves by embezzling state assets.

Before Mr Ben Ali's departure, diplomats spoke of Tunisia's first lady spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on shopping trips abroad, while her relatives acquired yachts and beachside villas and used their influence to muscle in on lucrative businesses.

Judge Touhami Hafian detailed how investigators who went to the presidential palace and Mr Ben Ali's private residence after he fled found 1.8 kilograms of illegal drugs and 43 million Tunisian dinars (Dh115 million) in cash.

He said they had also come across jewellery, archaeological artefacts and arms, all of which he said Mr Ben Ali had obtained illegally. The prosecutor asked the judge to hand down "the most severe punishments for those who betrayed the trust and stole the money of the people for their personal gain. They did not stop stealing for 23 years".

Mr Ben Ali said yesterday the charges against him were a fabrication designed to blacken his name.

He said the weapons were gifts from other heads of state and the jewellery had been given as gifts to his wife by foreign dignitaries.

The money and drugs had been planted in his home and the presidential palace after his departure as part of a plot against him, he said in the statement.

He also denied having any bank accounts in Switzerland or any other foreign country, and said that he did not own any property overseas.

Outside the courtroom, several hundred protesters chanted: "How long will he be allowed to flee?" Some demanded that Mr Ben Ali be sentenced to death.

"Why did they start with the trial over the drugs and weapons and stolen money?" said a woman protester. "Why don't they start with a trial for killing hundreds of people?"

Mr Ben Ali is also due to face a separate trial, in a Tunisian military court, on charges that include conspiring against the state and manslaughter.

In the statement released through his lawyers, Mr Ben Ali denied giving the order to fire on protesters.