Tunisia's ex-president convicted of smuggling

A Tunisian court has convicted the country's ousted president of smuggling drugs, guns and archeological artifacts.

Saudi Arabia refuses to extradite Ben Ali, who still faces 91 more charges

A Tunisian court has convicted the country's ousted president of smuggling drugs, guns and archeological artifacts. 

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison and fined $72,000 on Monday following his latest trial in absentia.

The verdict comes on the heels of a trial two weeks ago in which Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, each received sentences of 35 years in prison and were together fined some $65 million for embezzlement and misuse of public money.

Authorities say another 91 charges remain just for the civil courts.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron hand for more than two decades before fleeing to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, after a month-long popular uprising that heralded the start of a wave of protests for greater freedoms across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has declined to answer Tunisia's request to extradite the former president, but the new government has proceeded with the trials.

Monday's one-day trial began with the public defenders assigned to plead Ben Ali's case walking out of the courtroom after their request for more time was turned down.

The trial continued in their absence, with prosecutors citing the discovery of weapons and drugs as well as archeological treasures in Ben Ali's palace in Carthage.

They also cited the testimony of the head of his personal guard and one of his bodyguards.

Ben Ali has claimed in a statement that the jewels and weapons were gifts from heads of state and the money and drugs were planted.

The former president has foreign lawyers, but Tunisian law says lawyers from other countries cannot represent clients being tried in absentia. As a result, court-appointed lawyers Hosni Beji and Bechir Mahfoudhi were assigned to defend Ben Ali on Monday.

Beji asked the judge for sufficient time to contact his client and persuade him to attend the trial, while his colleague asked for another delay so that they could better prepare the defence. Their requests were denied.

"We would have liked a fair trial," said Beji, before leaving with his colleague. As they left the court, the lawyers were booed by onlookers, who shouted they should resign.

"Good riddance, you would have done better defending the victims of Ben Ali rather than be the lawyers for a torturer," said Ali Laayouni, a young unemployed university graduate from the centre of the country where the rebellion first broke out.

Monday's trial has already been delayed twice, first at the request of defence lawyers who said they needed more time to study the file. It was delayed again due to a lawyers' strike.

In addition to the civil cases, there are another 182 counts that fall under military jurisdiction, some of which could result in a death sentence.

Ben Ali's foreign lawyers have dismissed the trials as rigged and part of a campaign to demonize the former president at the behest of Tunisia's new rulers.

"Today's trial, like the past verdict and the 93 trials announced, is judicially nonexistent because it violates practically every criteria for a fair trial," said Akram Azoury, Ben Ali's Lebanese lawyer, in a statement.