x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

One year on, Tunisia to celebrate uprising with Ben Ali in exile

While crowds are expected to celebrate in Tunis today, the ousted dictator remains in Saudi Arabia but is wanted for trial at home.

TUNIS // A year ago today Tunisia made history when the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali collapsed after weeks of protests, transforming a police state into a nascent democracy and inspiring revolt across the Arab world.

Yet while crowds and dignitaries are expected today in Tunis, a key figure is missing: Ben Ali himself, harboured in Saudi Arabia but wanted for trial at home.

Ben Ali's refuge abroad has frustrated Tunisian authorities intent on bringing him to account for alleged crimes, while potentially offering encouragement to other beleaguered dictators.

"It's important for Tunisia to come to terms with the past and understand what happened under Ben Ali," said Habib Nassar, the Middle East and North Africa director for the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based NGO. "Tunisians want and have a right to know what happened and to see those responsible for abuse held accountable."

Last month a military tribunal began trying Ben Ali in absentia for a deadly crackdown a year ago against protesters, which could see him face the death penalty if convicted.

The tribunal said this month that the Saudi government had ignored two requests for Ben Ali's extradition. "What we're seeing with Ben Ali is pure impunity," Mr Nassar said. "That sets a bad example. Other dictators might hope to manage, like Ben Ali, to get some form of impunity."

Lawyers for Ben Ali, however, have said that the charges against him are unfounded and politically driven, and that he would not receive a fair trial if extradited.

"The day that Tunisia is ready to give him a fair trial, it will have dropped the case," said Jean-Yves Le Borgne, a Paris-based lawyer who is part of Mr Ben Ali's defence team. For now, "one doesn't leap into the jaws of the wolf".

Tunisian authorities have levelled 93 charges against Ben Ali, ranging from theft of public funds and money laundering to complicity in the deaths and injury of protesters shot by police during his final weeks in power.

He first took control of Tunisia in 1987 after sidelining his ailing predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, in a coup. A vast security apparatus jailed and tortured thousands of dissidents as Ben Ali steamrollered through a series of rigged elections.

Protests sparked when a poor fruit-and-vegetable seller set fire to himself in December 2010 culminated with a mass rally on January 14, 2011, in Tunis.

Within hours, the former leader was on a jet heading towards exile in Saudi Arabia, while his regime swiftly crumbled.

Interim authorities rounded up members of Ben Ali's family and inner circle, and Interpol issued international arrest warrants for him, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members.

In March Ben Ali's assets in Tunisia were seized by authorities acting on the orders of Fouad Mebazaa, then Tunisia's interim president. In June Ben Ali and Trabelsi were sentenced to 35 years in prison and fined 91 million Tunisian dinars (Dh220m) for embezzling state money after a trial in absentia that Ben Ali's lawyers described as a farce. He was convicted in two subsequent trials on guns, drugs and corruption charges and sentenced to a total of 31 additional years.

Ben Ali has also been convicted in absentia for crimes including abuse of power and illegal possession of weapons and narcotics.

According to Mr Le Borgne and Akram Azoury, a Beirut-based lawyer who is also helping defend Ben Ali, such trials are grounds for doubting the impartiality of Tunisia's court system.

While a Ben Ali-era law that has prevented foreign defence lawyers - including Mr Le Borgne and Mr Azoury - from pleading in Tunisian courts poses a problem, "this is not sufficient to conclude that the entire process is unfair", Mr Nassar said.

In October Tunisians voted in their first free elections, which produced a fresh interim government and a national assembly that is expected to write a new constitution within the next year or so.

Free speech has blossomed after decades of fear, and dozens of new civil society groups and political parties have been founded.

Ben Ali, meanwhile, has remained largely silent.

However, Mr Azoury said on Thursday that he plans to travel to Geneva next week to lodge a complaint by Ben Ali against Tunisian authorities with the United Nations Committee on Human Rights over the seizure of Ben Ali's assets.

For Mr Nassar, the most pressing issue should be the return of Ben Ali to Tunisia to face trial there. "Torture was documented. Demonstrators were killed. This took place while Ben Ali was president," he said. "It was an authoritarian centralised regime, so with any violation, there's a strong presumption that the head of state bears responsibility."