Ousted Tunisian President Convicted In Absentia

Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been tried in absentia on charges he embezzled large sums of cash and jewelry. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January and the kingdom has refused to extradite him. David Gauthier-Villars, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, talks to Steve Inskeep about what the conviction means for Tunisia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tunisia was the first Arab country to carry out a revolution. Now it's become the first country to convict its former leader of crimes while in office. And later this year, Tunisia has a chance to become the first to hold elections. We're going to talk about all of this with David Gauthier-Villars. He's a Wall Street Journal, who's been covering Tunisia.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Hello, Steven.

INSKEEP: I want to begin by asking about the conviction of the former President Ben-Ali. Impressive to do it. Impressive that he's convicted of embezzling $27 million. But what does it matter given that he's in exile in Saudi Arabia and isn't likely to come back?

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: Well, actually the conviction may be important in the way that it could help Tunisia's interim government recover some of the assets the former president allegedly owned overseas. You know, houses, cars and maybe money on bank accounts in France and Switzerland, in Austria, or elsewhere. And the authorities in France and in all these countries say they need proof that the assets precede illicit activity. Mr. Ben-Ali's convictions could provide such proof.

INSKEEP: So they're not likely to repatriate their former president and put him in jail, but they do have a chance now to get the money back. This can be a difficult moment for a lot of countries that change governments in a revolution, as I'm sure you know very well.

And one of the questions is how much time to spend going over the crimes of the past and how much time to spend trying to move on. Is there very much debate about that in Tunisia?

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: When you are in Tunisia you feel that the country is literally split between a group that wants to jump on the revolutionary wave and demand better jobs, better pay, better opportunities and another half which think that it's enough and that the country should get back to work, not worry too much about trying to build the best possible state on earth, but inch by inch build a new democracy.

INSKEEP: How anxious, if that's the right word, are people as they prepare for elections, the first round of voting coming perhaps in October?

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: Well, so the vote was initially scheduled in July. After much debate, it was postponed to October 23rd. The government said it was fro logistically issues. But they were concerned that this delay would be interpreted as a sign that Tunisia is not ready for democracy.

INSKEEP: Is part of the real reason for the delay a concern about who would win, which of course is the concern in Egypt? The more liberal forces in that country aren't as well organized as, say, the Muslim Brotherhood?

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: It is also a concern. Although the main party, called Nahda, presents themselves as a political party not a religious movement. And they say that they are in favor of a secular government. However, since they have this Islamic background a lot of people in Tunisia fear, you know, would you have clerics in the government.

INSKEEP: Is there a lot of support for a clerical government or for...

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: No, not really. I mean, that is the one thing that Mr. Ben-Ali did is fight for a secular Tunisia.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that he encouraged a secular government and a secular society and even though he has turned out to be hated and reviled, he's been convicted of crimes, thrown out of the country, he's never coming back, that secularism still has roots there?

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: Yes. And when you're in Tunisia you see - in Tunis and in the main cities - you don't see many women wearing the veil. You see a lot of women driving. You see a lot of women in senior positions. Just to show the gender equality is a reality in Tunisia.

INSKEEP: David Gauthier-Villars is a Wall Street Journal reporter who has been covering Tunisia. He is at the moment in Paris.

Thanks very much.

Mr. GAUTHIER-VILLARS: Thank you, Steven.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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