TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Suha Arafat, widow of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as part of a corruption probe into Tunisia’s former first family, the justice ministry said on Monday.
Suha Arafat used to spend much of her time in Tunisia and was for many years close to the wife of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee by the north African country’s revolution in January.
“Tunisia issued an arrest warrant against Mrs Arafat on suspicion of involvement in cases of financial corruption with the family of Ben Ali’s wife,” said Shokri Nafti, a spokesman for the justice ministry.
In Malta, Arafat said she had received no official notice of the warrant but was surprised by it, describing herself as a victim of the old Tunisian regime.
“I have not been informed officially of any warrant, and I am badly astonished because I was a victim of the Tunisian dictatorship and now I am an accused,” she told Maltese website timesofmalta.com.
The Arafat family established ties to Tunisia in the period when the Palestine Liberation Organization was exiled and set up its headquarters in Tunis in the 1980s and early 1990s.
After the death of the Palestinian leader in 2004, his widow received a Tunisian passport and was frequently seen in Tunisia alongside Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whose relatives came to control much of the economy.
But Arafat was stripped of her Tunisian nationality and deported in 2007 after a dispute with Trabelsi. She now lives in Malta, according to a Palestinian source who used to be close to the Arafat family.
The charges she faces in Tunisia include alleged corruption involving the setting up of a school by the Carthage International School in which she was involved with Trabelsi.
Arafat on Monday said she severed her links to the school in 2007 and had documents to prove that she had sold her shares to Asma Mahjoub, the niece of the former first lady.
Since Tunisia’s revolution, which set in motion Arab uprisings across the region, prosecutors have been pursuing dozens of people linked to the former first lady on charges of corruption.
The courts have also convicted Ben Ali and his wife, in absentia, of theft, possession of drugs and weapons, and corruption. Ben Ali’s lawyer denies the charges.
Reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis and Christopher Scicluna in Valletta; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Roger Atwood