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Tunisia ex-president Ben Ali sentenced in absentia to 15 years on drug and gun charges

Former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] was sentenced to an additional 15 years in prison [TAP News Agency report] on Monday by the Tunisian Court of Criminal Appeal after being found guilty in absentia on charges of illegal possession of drugs, weapons and stolen archaeological artifacts [La Presse de Tunis report, in French]. This follows last month's verdict [JURIST report] by the Tunisian Court of First Instance against Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, 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. Ben Ali's defense team asked for an adjournment to put together a defense and consult with their client, but their request was denied. One lawyer, Hosni Beji, said the charges were irrational [AFP report] arguing a small amount of cannabis resin should not support charges of intention to sell it. Judge Touhami El Hafi ordered the drugs to be destroyed, the weapons and ammunition to be sold for the benefit of the Treasury and the state artifacts returned to the National Heritage Institute [official website]. Ben Ali still faces charges on the alleged murder of demonstrators and conspiring against the internal security of the state [Bloomberg report].

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 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. Chebbi announced that Ben Ali had been charged with 18 offenses [JURIST report] in April.

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