A lawyer representing the country’s former President, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali has confirmed his client’s intention to return to Tunisia on condition that he can be guaranteed a ‘fair trial.’
Mounir Ben Salha, one of the five lawyers representing Ben Ali and his family told local radio station, Express FM, that his client was prepared to return from exile once the Tunisian state could agree to certain, (unspecified) guarantees over the manner in which the former President would be prosecuted.
However, Professor of Constitutional Law, Kais Saied questioned whether Tunisia’s legal system was robust enough to withstand the strain of prosecuting the former autocrat. “The situation is much more profound,” he said “there were several files which were not opened, and a lot of cases that have not been addressed. It is the, (legal) system itself that needs to be prosecuted and its part in Tunisian history.”
Certainly, the convictions that have been passed against the former autocrat and his family since they fled the country in 2011 are considerable. Following nationwide protests after the revolution, Ben Ali was convicted of unlawful possession of the country’s assets and initially sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. He received an additional sentence of 15 years on narcotics and gun charges.
The following year, a Tunis military court sentenced the former President to life imprisonment for theft, unlawful possession of assets, such foreign currency and jewelry, as well as for his complicity in the killing of 43 demonstrators in January 2011 that led to the deaths of a further 200 during the revolution. All verdicts were reached in absentia, following Ben Ali’s sudden flight from the country to seek exile in Saudi Arabia where, on what is understood to be an agreement with his Saudi hosts, he has declined to give interviews or comment on world events since his abrupt departure from the stage of global affairs.
Professor Saied explained that, in reality, the former President’s return, or even fresh convictions against Ben Ali were unlikely to change much, as the country’s course since the revolution had been clearly set. “This won’t lead to anything because the Tunisian people have already expressed themselves.”
Though not directly related to Ben Ali’s potential return, the African Union’s recent vote to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, a move supported by Tunisia, is likely to be a factor in his legal advisers’ thinking. Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concern over such a move, citing the difficulties a withdrawal might raise in prosecuting regime figures such as Ben Ali.