What use are Tunisia's trials of ousted leader Ben Ali?

AFP , Saturday 30 Jul 2011

With three trials in a month and prison terms of more than 66 years handed down, many Tunisians have started to wonder what use it is to try toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in his absence

Bin Ali (Reuters photo)

More than 100 court cases remain open against Tunisia"s former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was ousted by a popular uprising and fled with family and close aides on January 14 to Saudi Arabia, which refuses to extradite him.

Ben Ali has already been convicted of embezzlement, illegal possession of weapons and narcotics, housing frauds and abuse of power. His close family, particularly his wife Leila Trabelsi and his son-in-law Sakhr al Materi, have also been sentenced in absentia for some of these crimes.

But the symbolic impact of the first trial, on June 30, which aroused widespread curiosity, rapidly gave way to diminishing interest and then to growing criticism of the day-long hearings which inevitably end up with convictions.

"This serves to calm the crowds and win time. But at the end of the day, we no longer even know what it's about, when what is needed is a trial to set down in history," commented former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui.

While acknowledging that trials in the absence of the accused were "pure formalities" and that cases would reopen were Ben Ali present, he deplored the quick nature of the hearings.

"Those mainly responsible, the key people, have not been summoned to appear, when they should at least be heard as witnesses," Yahyaoui said, adding that he suspected that there was "a deliberate desire to cover things up, to protect people."

That view is shared by Omar Mestiri, a journalist and human rights activist who was persecuted under Ben Ali's regime in the north African country.

"These are trials to play to the gallery, when we need something more serious. It's too easy and dangerous to blame everything on one man, who is moreover no longer there to answer for his actions," Mestiri said.

"What we want is a trial of the Ben Ali system. We need to build up cases, put the machinery in place. We must also allow for the right to a legal defence and enable cross-examination," added Mestiri, who runs the Kalima radio station.

"Let's take the system of electoral frauds. Ben Ali was the main beneficiary but there are hundreds of members of parliament who owe their places to this system. Let's take the business tenders that enabled the (Ben Ali) clan to establish their hold over the economy.

"Administrators were accomplices in this. Where are those responsible? Who launched the defamation campaigns, who bought off the media? Who tortured thousands of citizens?

"All those questions, we avoid speaking about them and we avoid raising them," Mestiri stated.

"These trials serve no purpose at all," said Hosni Beji, a lawyer for the Ben Ali family in several cases. "What use will sentences of 700 or 800 years be in the end?"

Beji also denounced the "execrable atmosphere" prevailing during hearings. The courtrooms are packed, the noise is considerable and the public boos the defendants and tries to yell questions at the lawyers.

"These are not the conditions for a peaceful and fair justice," Beji stressed.

But prosecution lawyers say these trials "serve to let the Tunisian people know what happened in this country" and could perhaps also put pressure on Saudi Arabia, which has so far turned a deaf ear to requests to extradite Ben Ali.


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