Tunisia's Ben Ali sentenced to jail in absentia

File photo (2009) of then Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila in Carthage, near Tunis Ben Ali, seen with his wife in this photo from 2009, ruled Tunisia for 23 years

A Tunisian court has sentenced former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila to 35 years in jail for embezzlement and misusing public funds.

The couple, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January after a popular uprising, were also fined $66m (£41m).

The one-day trial in absentia focused on $27m of cash and jewels reportedly found inside one of their palaces.

A second case concerning Ben Ali only, which relates to the possession of drugs and weapons, was postponed.

Ben Ali's lawyer said the verdict was politically motivated and "a joke".

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Tunis says it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will allow the couple to be extradited.

Ongoing investigations

Five months after they were forced to leave the country, Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were put on trial in absentia at the Tunis criminal court.

Prosecutors said the cash and jewels, some of which had "historic value", were found in their palace in Sidi Bou Said, a town outside the capital.

Analysis

It was a trial conducted with a speed and efficiency the former Tunisian leader might have admired, if he had not been the accused.

In one day the case against him was outlined, the prosecution called for the toughest possible punishment, and the judge duly delivered a sentence of 35 years in prison.

It is only the beginning of a series of trials, which could eventually lead to former President Ben Ali being sentence to death. His lawyer argued in court that he had been tricked into leaving the country, and read a statement in which he declared his innocence.

But the former president shows no sign of returning to argue his case. So for the moment this verdict, and all subsequent trials, are largely academic - a means by which the Tunisian people can try to satisfy their rage against the autocrat they successfully forced from office five months ago.

After only six hours, the judge said it had been established that they had misused public money and sentenced to them prison. The sentences will take immediate effect, despite their absence.

The judge also ordered Ben Ali to pay $36m and his wife $30m.

A second case against the ex-president, involving weapons and drugs allegedly found in a presidential residence in Carthage, was postponed until 30 June to allow his lawyers more time to prepare.

Ben Ali is also being investigated on suspicion of murder, abuse of power, trafficking of archaeological artefacts and money laundering.

Speaking from Beirut, Ben Ali's lawyer Akram Azouri told the BBC the sentence was "a joke".

"Don't forget that the drug and the money were found three months after the president left his palace.

"And don't forget that I am the lawyer for President Ben Ali, and I requested the Tunisian authority to allow me to defend him, and the authorisation was not given to me."

Mr Azouri said the trial was a "continuation of the political judgement that has already been issued and executed".

Speaking through his lawyers on Sunday, Ben Ali mounted a defence of his 23 years as president, which many Tunisians say was marked by autocratic rule, corruption and human rights abuses.

"He would like everyone to know this criminal prosecution is only a false and shameful image of victor's justice," a statement said.

"Is the purpose behind that [trial] to divert the attention of Tunisians from the turmoil that nobody can accuse him of or hold him responsible for?

"He knows that every new political authority wants to blame its predecessor and hold it responsible for difficulties it fails to resolve."

On Monday, Ben Ali issued another statement saying he had taken his family to Saudi Arabia on 14 January for safety.

He said he had intended to return to Tunisia immediately, but the plane left without him, "disobeying my instructions".

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