Former president condemns trial as ‘masquerade’

Tunisia’s former autocratic leader, whose downfall triggered uprisings in the Arab world, condemned his upcoming trial as a “shameful masquerade,” according to a statement released Sunday. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia, will be tried in absentia at the Tunis criminal court Monday.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s former autocratic leader, whose downfall triggered uprisings in the Arab world, condemned his upcoming trial as a “shameful masquerade,” according to a statement released Sunday.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia, will be tried in absentia at the Tunis criminal court Monday.

Ben Ali’s French lawyer released a statement from his client about the trial and his departure for Saudi Arabia. It marks the first public words from Ben Ali since he left the North African country Jan. 14 after a monthlong uprising that led to street protests in Arab countries.

Ben Ali, 74, denied that he fled Tunisia, saying he left to avoid “fratricidal and deadly confrontations” among Tunisians. The statement said he would clarify the circumstances of his departure at an appropriate time.

Since he flew to Saudi Arabia, judicial officials in Tunisia’s interim government have been investigating Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.

Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi are both charged in one of the two cases before the court Monday — the discovery of about $27 million in jewels and foreign and Tunisian currency at a palace in a village north of Tunis.

The second case targeting only Ben Ali surrounds the seizure of arms and drugs in the official presidential palace in Carthage. He faces charges of possessing and trafficking drugs, detention of arms and munitions and failing to declare archaeological works also found at the palace.

If convicted, Ben Ali faces five to 20 years in prison for each offence.

More serious charges, including plotting against the security of the state and murder, will be dealt with at future trials. Judicial authorities say that Ben Ali and his entourage are implicated in 93 civil cases and 182 others that fall under military jurisdiction. Many of the cases could be joined, reducing the number.

He and his wife have been assigned five public defenders. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, judicial officials say, meaning French lawyer Jean-Yves Le Borgne cannot take part in proceedings. Saudi Arabia did not respond to an extradition request.

In the statement, Ben Ali denies accusations against him, saying he never had huge sums of money and claiming most of the weapons found were gifts from visiting heads of state.

“As for the drugs allegedly found, that is a lie and an ignominy … It is absurd and defamatory,” the statement from the lawyer said.

The trial is a “shameful masquerade of the justice of the victorious” with “no goal but to accuse yesterday’s president,” it said. “I devoted my life to my country and aspire, at the twilight of my existence, to conserve my honour,” Ben Ali said in the statement.

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