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Tunisia's Former President Denies Charges Ahead of Monday Trial

Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (file photo)
Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (file photo)
Lisa Bryant

Former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has denied all charges against him on the eve of his trial in absentia. Mr. Ben Ali's lawyer said Sunday the former president hopes Tunisia will overcome its "chaos."

Six months after massive popular protests ousted Ben Ali, the North African country is bringing him to trial - but in absentia. Many Tunisians feel the event will help bring closure to a bitter past.

Tunisian authorities say both a civilian and military court will hear the case against Ben Ali, which begins on Monday.  But he, in exile in Saudi Arabia, will not be present for the trial's opening. Saudi authorities have not responded to Tunisia's extradition request.

Ben Ali faces dozens of charges, including conspiring against the state, voluntary manslaughter and drug trafficking. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to years in prison. One of Ben Ali's lawyers told the Associated Press the ex-president will plead not guilty.

The former strongman held power for 23 years before fleeing to Saudi Arabia in January, in the wake of a massive, popular uprising. Now, human rights advocates like Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, lament Ben Ali's absence at the trial.

Trifi says it is too bad Ben Ali will not be present in court to face the accusations, although he welcomes the legal proceedings against the former president. He says he hopes the United States and other foreign powers will pressure Saudi Arabia to extradite him.

Many Tunisians believe Ben Ali and his extended clan improperly amassed vast fortunes. During the January uprising, protesters ransacked and set fire to dozens of their businesses and luxurious villas.

Although calm has returned to much of Tunisia, there is still unrest in parts of the country. Soldiers and the occasional tank can still be seen patrolling the capital, Tunis.  The country is now preparing for October elections for a constituent assembly, tasked to write a new constitution and prepare for legislative and presidential elections.

Thirty-year-old Moiz Rezgui is happy Ben Ali will be brought to trial -- whether the ex-president is present or not. He says the fact Ben Ali will face justice for his deeds will satisfy the Tunisian public.

Noureddine Hamila, a member of Tunisia's Progressive Democratic Party, remembers being beaten and harassed during Ben Ali's era. Hamila also says he would have preferred for Ben Ali to be present at the trial. But he says the trial is part of the past - and Tunisia must now light the way to its future.

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