The Bizarre Charges Against Tunisia's Former President

Ben Ali is accused of smuggling drugs, arms, jewels, and archaeological artifacts

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Toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who may eventually be prosecuted in military court for civilian deaths during the country's revolution, became the Arab Spring's first ousted leader to face trial on Monday, albeit in absentia (Saudi Arabia, where Ben Ali is living in exile, has ignored extradition requests from Tunis). The former leader, who argued in a statement today that he was tricked into leaving Tunisia in January, is facing a rather bizarre array of charges--ranging from plundering public funds to smuggling drugs, weapons, jewelry, and archaeological artifacts--that could land him in jail for up to 20 years. What's the evidence against him?

Piecing together several media reports, it appears the charges stem from the alleged discovery by Tunisian officials of two kilograms of drugs (thought to be cannabis), jewelry stashed in 169 envelopes, valuable archaeological artifacts, and weapons including an American-made machine gun in Ben Ali's private office at a presidential palace in Carthage, plus over over $27 million in cash at a palace in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said. In his statement today, Ben Ali asserted that the weapons and jewelry were gifts from visiting heads of state and foreign dignitaries and that the money and drugs were planted in his mansion as part of a conspiracy against him. In a stunning data point, AFP notes that Tunisian investigators are "trying to establish an inventory of ill-gotten gains amassed by the ousted president and his wife, estimated by the head of a national commission as being worth about a quarter of Tunisia's gross national product."

That's not all. By examining Tunisian court papers and interviewing Tunisian businessmen, The Wall Street Journal has also learned that Ben Ali and his relatives--known as "The Family"--trounced business rivals for two decades by exploiting their political authority to score state contracts. In one example, the Ben Ali regime prevented an entrepreneur from opening a French car dealership in the country by keeping his cars at customs for months and forcing him to undergo 17 tax inspections. "Administrators who are freezing assets of more than 100 Ben Ali family members say they are uncovering an economic network so vast that untangling it too quickly could disrupt Tunisia further," the Journal writes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.