Ex-leader dubs trial a 'masquerade'
Tunisia's former ruler, whose removal triggered a series of Arab world uprisings, has gone on trial in his absence in the first of a long series of court proceedings five months after he went into exile.
The Tunis Criminal Court is hearing two embezzlement, money laundering and drug trafficking cases against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It follows the discovery of around 27 million dollars (£17 million) in jewels and cash plus drugs and weapons at two palaces outside Tunis after he flew to Saudi Arabia on January 14.
Ben Ali, 74, vigorously denied the charges in a statement through his lawyer, calling the proceedings a "shameful masquerade of the justice of the victorious."
Five public defenders have been assigned to Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, who is accused in one of the two cases in the trial. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, judicial officials said, meaning French lawyer Jean-Yves Le Borgne cannot take part in proceedings.
Saudi Arabia did not respond to an extradition request, and some Tunisians expressed frustration that he would not be present for his judgment.
Ben Ali and his wife are charged in the discovery of a trove of valuable jewels and cash in Tunisian and foreign currency at a palace in a village north of Tunis. Images of the cache shown on TV after the discovery shocked Tunisians.
The second case surrounds the seizure of arms and drugs at the official presidential palace in Carthage during a search by a commission investigating abuse of authority formed after Ben Ali's departure. 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.
In the statement released by Mr Le Borgne, Ben Ali "vigorously 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.