TUNIS Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's feared former security chief was acquitted Friday on charges of forging passports to help relatives of the deposed Tunisian leader and his wife escape with cash and jewelry.
A Tunisian court dropped the case against Ali al-Seriati, but he remains in custody pending more serious charges of trying to sow strife in the wake of the revolution that sparked the "Arab Spring" protests that spread across the region.
Ben Ali's overthrow after weeks of protests electrified millions across the Arab world, who suffered similarly from high unemployment, repressive governments and rampant corruption.
Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, accused of involvement in killing protesters, went on trial earlier this month, appearing in a hospital bed behind a courtroom cage.
The scene enthralled the Arab world but dismayed Tunisians who have seen high-profile allies of Ben Ali escape the country and are concerned about what they see as the slow pace of legal proceedings in the seven months since their revolution.
Exiled to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali and his wife are being tried in absentia, frustrating Tunisians thirsty for accountability after 23 years under what was widely termed "The Family."
In the same session, the court sentenced 23 relatives of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, to jail terms ranging between four months and six years. Leila Trabelsi was sentenced to six years in absentia and Ben Ali's powerful son-in-law Sakher Materi was sentenced to four years in absentia.
"These verdicts are disappointing," said Abdelmajid, a Tunisian man who came to watch the sentencing.
"Is it possible that some of the Trabelsis get just four months or a year? Why don't they just release them too?"
The court released from custody Friday the former finance minister Mohammed Rechid Kchich, though corruption charges against him have not been dropped.
His release comes on the heels of the release of the reviled former justice minister, who also still faces charges.
Analysts and politicians say Ben Ali's former allies are still in positions of power and are working behind the scenes to save their friends, protect their interests and roll back the gains Tunisians have made since Ben Ali fled the country.
"The struggle now is between those who supported the Tunisian revolution and some pockets of the former regime who want to protect their previous political and economic interests," said Sofiene Chourabi, a young journalist and activist blogger who helped the revolution spread from the marginalised interior to the capital Tunis in December.
Seriati was considered close to the Tunisian leader and many Tunisians accuse him of orchestrating a spree of violence after Ben Ali fled the country on January 14 for Saudi Arabia.
The relatives were captured at the airport as they prepared to flee with cash and jewelry on the night Ben Ali left.
Seriati was arrested shortly after Ben Ali's departure, and appealed for forgiveness in court Wednesday.
"I ask the Tunisian people to forgive me. I am Tunisian and I love Tunisia," he shouted at the end of the hearing.
Tunisians acknowledge progress has been made. The old Tunisia was a police state in which justice was arbitrary.
Yet many are concerned that reform is too slow and is endangering the transition to democratic elections on October 23.
Protests are planned in the coming days to demand a judicial overhaul to try to ensure that police and officials are held accountable for the deaths of more than 100 protesters.
"Even Seriati is innocent. So who are the criminals? The people who went on protests from December 17 to January 14? And they said it was a revolution," wrote one Tunisian on Facebook.
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Janet Lawrence)