Ousted Tunisian leader gets 15-year jail term

TUNIS Mon Jul 4, 2011 1:00pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian court on Monday sentenced former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in absentia to more than 15 years in prison after finding him guilty of illegal possession of drugs and weapons.

Lawyers for Ben Ali, ousted in January and now in Saudi Arabia, boycotted the trial, calling it a sham. It is the second major sentence passed on Ben Ali, who was handed a 35-year jail term for other crimes last month.

Ben Ali's overthrow in January after weeks of protests inspired the wave of "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.

Following the one-day trial, the judge sentenced Ben Ali to 15 years and six months, adding that the six months had been tacked on for illegal possession of archaeological artifacts.

Ben Ali was convicted of possession of drugs with the intent to sell them and illegal possession of weapons.

At the hearing, one of his lawyers had asked the judge for a delay so he could persuade Ben Ali to return to Tunisia to face trial. Judge Touhami Hafian refused to grant the petition.

"In that case we are withdrawing from this hearing, which does not meet the right to a fair trial," the lawyer said, after which the judge adjourned the hearing.

Members of the public in the courtroom shouted at Ben Ali's lawyers: "Get out! You have betrayed Tunisia by defending Ben Ali" and "You should have defended the young people killed by Ben Ali's weapons."

The judge resumed the hearing without Ben Ali's defense lawyers present.

In a statement released last month, the former president said the charges were a fabrication. He said the weapons were ceremonial gifts and that the drugs had been planted.

Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi were each given 35 years in prison last month after the court found them guilty of theft and of illegally possessing jewelry and large sums of cash.

A statement issued on Monday by the Lebanese law firm representing Ben Ali said its lawyers would not be taking part in the proceedings because they were a sham.

"Today's trial ... violates all the norms of a just trial," the statement said.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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