PARIS Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki offered ousted leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Tuesday guarantees of physical safety and promised him a fair trial if he returned to his homeland.
Ben Ali fled with his wife to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, as protests swept Tunisia. He has already been sentenced in absentia to decades in jail for the killing of hundreds of protesters in the central towns where the Arab Spring began.
"If Mr Ben Ali has nothing to feel guilty about then let him come back to Tunisia. I can guarantee his physical safety and he will be given a fair trial," Marzouki said at a news conference with French President Francois Hollande in Paris.
During his 23 years in office, Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and their extended family are believed by many Tunisians to have accumulated fortunes, stashing money in foreign accounts while unemployment soared at home.
His wife said in an interview on July 1 that Ben Ali had been ousted by an orchestrated coup, but would be ready to face a fair trial in Tunisia.
Ben Ali's lawyer said on Monday that his client was ready to hand over to his country any assets found in Switzerland, widely believed to be tens of millions of dollars.
"I was very surprised by Mr Ben Ali's proposal to give us back a part of (what was taken). We want everything. We estimate that what this man and his family stole from Tunisia is in the billions of dollars and all of this has to be returned to Tunisia," Marzouki said.
The lavish lifestyle of Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and her circle was especially seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of corruption in the Ben Ali era.
The new Tunisian leaders have come under immense public pressure to retrieve any Ben Ali assets held abroad and to speed up the slow pace of justice for former officials associated with him.
(Reporting By John Irish and Julien Ponthus; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)