Tunisia's Ousted President Convicted In Absentia

Tunisia — where one man's protest sparked a wave of popular uprisings that spread through the Middle East — experienced another watershed moment this week. It was the first of the so-called Arab Spring countries to put its ousted leader on trial. After only one day of consideration, a Tunisian judge handed down a sentence of 35 years a piece to Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife. Robert Siegel talks with Philippe Sauvagnargues, a Tunis-based reporter for the French news agency Agence France-Presse. Sauvagnargues discusses the brief trial — and how it's being received in Tunisia.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And yesterday brought a first in the wave of uprisings to sweep the Arab world: a legal conviction. Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, along with his wife, was sentenced Monday by a criminal court in Tunis to 35 years in jail. Their crime: Embezzling public funds.

Both were convicted in absentia. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January and the kingdom has so far refused to extradite him.

Philippe Sauvagnargues is covering this story for Agence France-Presse, the French press agency, and he joins us now from Tunis. And let's start with the scope of the charges. This wasn't about torture or other abuses, just about embezzlement and misuse of public funds. Is that right?

Mr. PHILIPPE SAUVAGNARGUES (Reporter, Agence France-Presse): Yeah. Exactly, Robert. This was just the beginning of a long series of trials, normally. So that was really a first act.

He was accused, in this case, of embezzlement, of illegally possessing large sums of cash and jewelry which were found after his departure in one of the palaces close to Tunis, in Sidi Bou Said, actually. That's the reason why he was condemned yesterday, as you said, to 35 years in prison. And also, to fines totaling 91 million dinars, which is approximately $65 million.

SIEGEL: So convicted and sentenced both to prison and to a huge fine in one day. And still, there are to be more trials of Ben Ali and his family, I gather.

Mr. SAUVAGNARGUES: Yes, you're quite right. First, there were two sets of accusations yesterday. The second one was postponed until June 30th. And the charges this time relate to illegal possession of drugs and weapons, which were found in another palace - the presidential palace in Carthage.

SIEGEL: Carthage, or as we would say, Carthage. This is the city just outside of Tunis.

Mr. SAUVAGNARGUES: Yeah. And the defense asked to have more time to prepare. So we understand that the verdict might be handed down on June 30th.

But also, this is only for starters because the real important things which relate to a possible accusation of manslaughters for the people who were killed during the so-called revolution will come later and in front of military courts.

SIEGEL: Can a trial that yesterday lasted only a few hours and already produced a conviction, can that provide the sense - people speak of a sense of closure at a moment like this, when the country ousts a former dictator? Or was that just too simple to convict the man?

Mr. SAUVAGNARGUES: Well, that might be the case. I don't think it will bring any closure because Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, are not here in Tunis and were not in the court. So, people were clearly resenting that. They would've wished that the Tunisian government had made more efforts to have them brought back here and brought to justice.

SIEGEL: Do people there have any hope that the Saudis might actually extradite Ben Ali, who I believe now is quoted as saying he was mistaken to have fled Tunisia in the first place?

Mr. SAUVAGNARGUES: Obviously, here, people would like to see him judged in person. They would like him to come back. I think that a lot of people think that the Saudis will never extradite him. But who knows, why not?

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Sauvagnargues, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. SAUVAGNARGUES: Thank you very much, sir.

SIEGEL: That is reporter Philippe Sauvagnargues of Agence France-Presse, AFP, the French press agency, talking to us from Tunis about the trial of Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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