Tunisia president Ben Ali.
(photo credit: Courtesy [archive])
TUNIS - Tunisia
began the trial on Monday of former president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali,
whose ouster by protesters angry over corruption and police repression
inspired the "Arab Spring" that has swept the region.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14,
after mass protests against 23 years of rule in which he, his wife and
their family built stakes in the country's biggest businesses and
accumulated vast fortunes at what Tunisians say was their expense.
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Ben Ali said in court he was deceived into leaving the country, and denied giving orders for security forces to shoot at protesters who were demanding he step down.
In a statement issued by his lawyers, Ben Ali said he had agreed to take a plane to Saudi Arabia to bring his family to safety, and had planned to return immediately.
But he said the aircraft left Saudi Arabia without him after the crew ignored his instructions.
revolt electrified millions across the Arab world, who suffer similarly
from high unemployment, rising prices and repressive rule. Ben Ali's
trial will be watched closely in Egypt, where former president Hosni
Mubarak is due to stand trial over the killing of protesters.
Touhami Hafian, sitting in the Palace of Justice in the Tunisian
capital, said the court would begin by hearing charges that Ben Ali was
in unlawful possession of foreign currency, jewelry, archeological
artifacts, drugs and weapons.
"This is a normal trial," the judge said.
to Reuters before the hearing began, Husni Beji, one of five lawyers
representing Ben Ali, told Reuters: "We are going to ask for an
adjournment ... I want to convince Ben Ali to attend the trial."
Ben Ali's departure, most Tunisians have been preoccupied with
deteriorating law and order and political instability as the caretaker
authorities try to guide the country towards democracy.
is still deep-seated anger at Ben Ali's rule, which many people say was
characterized by repression and corruption on a grand scale involving
members of Ben Ali's extended family.
The Tunisian press, enjoying unprecedented freedom after years of state
control, has carried numerous reports saying "The Family", as Tunisians
refer to them, had absconded from the country with large sums of money
More than 30 members of Ben Ali's family and that of his wife, Leila
Trabelsi, were arrested in the days following the fall of his regime.
Some have since been charged with economic crimes and abuse of power.
Angry protesters looted and vandalized the luxury villas they owned in upscale coastal suburbs early on.
Ben Ali and his family built up interests in many Tunisian companies and
industries during his two decades in power, including in hotels, banks,
tuna exports, construction, newspapers and pharmaceuticals.
Tunisian officials have vowed to recover Ben Ali's assets and return them to the state.
In a statement released by his lawyers on Sunday, the 74-year-old Ben Ali denied the charges against him.
said the prosecution was an attempt by Tunisia's new leaders to
distract attention from their failure to restore stability in the six
months since he left the country.
Ben Ali is also due to face a
separate trial, in a Tunisian military court, on charges that include
conspiring against the state and manslaughter.