Tunisia trial restarts for 23 allies of Ben Ali

TUNIS – Lawyers representing 23 relatives and collaborators of Tunisia's ousted president argued Wednesday that the legal proceedings against their clients were riddled with nullifying defects and urged judges to drop the charges.

The 23 were facing charges including illegally possessing foreign currency, jewelry trafficking and attempting to flee the country. If convicted, they could be sentenced to from six months to five years in prison, as well as hefty fines.

The defendants were detained at the Tunis airport as they attempted to board a private plane on 14 January, the day ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia amid nationwide demonstrations.

The defendants included two sisters of Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, as well as her nephew.

Ben Ali's security chief, Ali Seriati – whose role in the former president's flight remains murky – was facing charges including falsification of passports. His lawyer maintained his innocence, alleging Seriati had been "the victim of an arbitrary arrest."

The proceedings restarted on Wednesday after judges granted the defense's request for two postponements. A verdict is expected Friday.

Ben Ali himself faces more than 100 charges in civil and military cases, some of which could result in a death sentence. A Lebanese lawyer for the former Tunisian strongman has maintained his client is being unfairly targeted.

Saudi Arabia has not granted requests for Ben Ali's extradition, and he, his wife and other members of Tunisia's former ruling clan have been tried in absentia and convicted on charges including embezzlement and gun and drug smuggling.

Corruption in Ben Ali's inner circle was one of the drivers of anger at his regime that fueled the popular protests earlier this year, ending 23 years of iron-fisted rule over the small North African nation.

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