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TUNISIA: Court sentences 25 relatives of Ben Ali and his wife to prison

August 13, 2011 |  8:27 am

-1 When the 23-year reign of ex-Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali crumbled this year after nationwide popular protests that forced him into exile on Jan. 14, dozens of his relatives and those of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, rushed to the Tunis airport on the same night to try to flee the country--allegedly with pockets stashed with cash and jewels.

Most of them didn't get far though, partly because one pilot is said to have refused to take off after he found out that members of the group were among the passengers.

Their escape plan had apparently also been foiled by the Tunisian police. Earlier this week, a Tunisian police colonel claimed he and a group of police officers caught 22 of the group on a bus driving them to a private plane on the airport tarmac, reported Agence-France Presse.

Ben Ali and Trabelsi managed to leave, however, and were granted refuge in Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, a Tunis court sentenced 25 relatives of Ben Ali and his wife to prison terms in the so-called "Tunis-Carthage Airport Case" with jail sentences ranging from a couple of months to six years and fines totaling 200 million Tunisian dinars ($140 million) for illegally trying to escape the country with money and jewelry, according to the official Tunisian news agency TAP.

Six of them, including Trabelsi herself, were sentenced in absentia for involvement in the case.

The news agency included details of each convicted person's sentence on its site. For example, Moez Trabelsi-- Trabelsi's nephew-- was given a six-year jail term in absentia and a fine. Leila Trabelsi's sisters Jalila and Samira landed prison terms of 18 months and four months respectively plus fines, according to the report.

The 54-year-old former first lady was sentenced to six years in absentia for complicity for allegedly instructing her relatives to drive to the airport and fly to France.

1538209_3_2fc2_le-president-dechu-zine-el-abidine-ben-ali-etSakher Materi, a wealthy businessman and Ben Ali's widely disliked eccentric son-in-law, who reportedly kept a pet tiger in the backyard of his villa in the coastal town of Hamamet, was given four years in prison and a fine.

However, the court acquitted Ben Ali's feared ex-security chief Ali Seriati on charges of forging passports to help those close to Ben Ali and his wife get out of Tunisia. But he will remain in custody for far more serious charges, including plotting against state security and trying to incite criminal acts.

"I ask the Tunisian people to forgive me," the Reuters news agency quoted him as shouting as he left Friday's court session. "I am Tunisian and I love Tunisia."

Tunisian journalist and blogger Sofiane Chourabi told Babylon & Beyond that Tunisian courts are currently considering additional cases brought against relatives of Ben Ali-- aside from the ex-security chief -- which could increase their jail terms if convicted.

But he said he is far more worried about alleged remaining corruption in some Tunisian authorities that he says can create hurdles in extinguishing impunity in the former police state.

"The problems are not tied to the number of years the symbols of the former regime are sentenced to but -- it's about the rampant corruption in the judiciary, which raises many questions about the seriousness of the new interim authority in bringing justice."

Ben Ali, 74, has been sentenced to more than 60 years in prison in absentia in various Tunisian trials over the past months. Tunisia has asked Saudi Arabia to hand over Ben Ali to the Tunisian authorities but the demand has so far not been met.

His convictions include a myriad of charges including corruption, property fraud, and possession of weapons, archaeological pieces and drugs.

When Tunisian authorities searched his palaces earlier this year, they stumbled upon an American machine gun, archaeological artifacts, and stashes of cash totaling millions of dollars stored at his estate, Tunisian media reports say.

Most recently, a Tunisian government commission on Aug. 9 confiscated more than 200 luxury cars belonging to Ben Ali and his cohorts and relatives. Vehicles seized reportedly include a $1 million German model that Ben Ali gave to Trabelsi as a birthday present.

More than 300 people were killed in the roughly four-week long uprising against Ben Ali and his regime.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos: Ali Seriati, the former security chief of ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali, arrives in a Tunis court room for a hearing on Aug. 12. Credit: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters. Lower image: Ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali and his wife, Leila. Credit: Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse