Former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and his wife were sentenced Monday by a Tunisian court after being found guilty in absentia on charges of theft and unlawful possession of money and jewelry. The two were sentenced to 35 years in prison [Reuters report] and fined USD $65.6 million. The sentencing came just hours after the trial began [JURIST report]. The two were also charged with illegal possession of drugs and weapons, but the verdict for those charges would not be announced until June 30. Ben Ali fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia in January during protests against his 23-year autocratic rule in which his family amassed substantial wealth [Reuters report] that many Tunisians say was at their expense. But Ben Ali said Monday that he was "duped" into leaving [AFP report] the capital Tunis, according to a statement released through his lawyer. He said that he was trying to get his family out of the country after assassination threats and that the plane left him in Saudi Arabia despite orders to wait for him. Ben Ali has denied the charges against him [JURIST report] which stem mostly from allegations that he authorized the use of force against protesters during the Tunisian revolution, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi [profile, in French] announced the issuance of an arrest warrant for Ben Ali in January, though the country has not received a response to its request to extradite [JURIST reports] the former leader from Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile. The uprisings in Tunisia and ousting of Ben Ali were the beginning of similar uprisings across the Middle East also resulting in the ousting of former Egypt president Hosni Mubarak [Al Jazeera profile; JURIST news archive].
Chebbi announced that Ben Ali had been charged with 18 offenses in April. The announcement came a little over a month after Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy websites] called for the Tunisian transitional government to investigate incidents of police violence against protesters and end police brutality [JURIST reports]. In January, the Tunisian Constitutional Council officially announced that Ben Ali had permanently left the office of the presidency after he declared a state of emergency [JURIST report] amid nationwide protests, banning public gatherings and allowing police to fire on anyone refusing to obey orders, and fled the country. The leader of the lower house of parliament, Foued Mebezza, assumed power as interim president [JURIST report] and is expected to remain in power until elections are held, which Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi [Reuters profile] has indicated will be within the next several months.