TUNIS , (AFP)— Ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was to be tried in absentia Monday on drugs and weapon charges described as “irrational” by his lawyer who wants more time to defend his client.
The trial, the second involving the ex-leader, had been scheduled to take place last week but was postponed due to a judges strike.
Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi have already been sentenced to 35 years in prison for misappropriating public funds after large sums of cash and jewellery were discovered in a police search of their palace.
The trial took place without the couple who fled to Saudi Arabia following January’s popular uprising.
A Tunis court also imposed a 45 million euro ($65.3 million) fine in the June 20 conviction, handed down after only six hours’ deliberation.
Ben Ali alone is accused of harbouring drugs and weapons at his palace in the Carthage neighbourhood north of Tunis. He also faces a drug trafficking charge.
His lawyer Hosni Beji said the pending charges were “irrational.”
“How can we imagine that a president holding power can have two kilogrammes of cannabis resin of mediocre quality (with intentions) of selling it,” he told AFP.
Beji also said most of the weapons found at the palace were personal gifts from high-ranking international officials.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz were among those who gave Ben Ali the tokens, he said.
The lawyer added that he has a list of witnesses that should be able to prove Ben Ali “never owned or kept drugs” and intends to ask for an adjournment to allow him more time to meet with Ben Ali and prepare his defence.
The former ruler and his wife have been living in exile since January 14, with Riyadh ignoring, at least publicly, Tunisian demands for their extradition.
Ben Ali denounced his conviction as a “parody of justice” and “political liquidation,” in a statement issued after the trial.
In addition to Monday’s hearing, he and his entourage face possible legal proceedings in no less than 182 other cases.
In one, a military court is expected to consider charges relating to the 300 people killed during the uprising.
They also face trial on charges of torture, money laundering and trafficking of archaeological artefacts.
Many Tunisians have questioned the value of prosecuting Ben Ali in his absence, with some commentators deeming it a “show trial”.
A joint statement issued by the International Federation of Human Rights and the Tunisian League of Human Rights welcomed the convictions but said all efforts were not made to secure Ben Ali’s extradition before the trial.