A Tunisian court has issued an international arrest warrant against the widow of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over alleged corruption, a justice official said Monday.
Suha Arafat, who was stripped of her Tunisian citizenship in 2007 following a dispute with the former ruling family and currently lives in Malta, vehemently denied any corruption allegations and said she was ready to lay the case bare.
Justice ministry spokesman Kadhem Zine el Abidine told AFP that a Tunis court had issued the warrant against 48-year-old Suha Arafat, but gave no reason for the move.
According to Tunisian papers, Arafat’s widow is wanted over alleged corruption dating to the spring of 2007, when she founded the Carthage International School in Tunis with the country’s much-vilified former first lady Leila Trabelsi.
The two women then fell out, purportedly over Suha Arafat’s criticism of an alleged move by Trabelsi to close down another private school that would have been in direct competition with their joint venture.
According to a US diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, Suha Arafat met the then US ambassador after the dispute and lashed out at the ruling family.
She said that now ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali would spend all day in his residence running after his young son and “simply does what his wife asks him to do”.
She was subsequently declared persona non grata, stripped of her Tunisian nationality in 2007, less than a year after acquiring it, and expelled.
She settled in Malta, where her brother served as Palestinian ambassador.
In an interview with AFP in English at her Malta home, Arafat said she would fight the charges “as I fought a lot of things”.
“I was so much astonished, badly astonished actually because I was a victim of the Tunisian dictatorship,” said the 48-year-old, adding that she had “not been informed officially” of any warrant and had read about it in the press.
“I have all the documents, all the information, everything that proves that I have nothing to do with that school,” she said, in reference to the Carthage International School.
“I left that school immediately… because the First Lady she was doing corruption. I told her not to do this corruption,” she added.
“I said I can’t stand this that you are doing this to other schools so she said: ‘Okay you don’t want, leave it.'”
Speaking to AFP by phone earlier Monday, Suha Arafat said she had hired a lawyer to defend her case.
“I reject all the accusations listed in the media; I am ready to deal with this issue, to submit documents, and I have entrusted a Tunisian lawyer to present these documents,” she said.
Born into a well-to-do Christian Palestinian family, Suha Arafat married the historic leader in 1990, though the marriage was not revealed until two years later.
She served as secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was based in Tunisia between 1982 and 1994.
Suha Arafat gave birth to the couple’s only child Zahwa in 1995, in a private hospital in Paris, but marital life quickly degenerated into de facto separation.
While her husband shepherded the Palestinian cause in Gaza and Ramallah, Suha was often accused of siphoning the aspiring state’s meagre public funds to bankroll her lavish lifestyle in Paris.
After her husband’s death in November 2004, Suha Arafat returned to Tunisia, where she was eventually granted Tunisian citizenship for the second time.
Ben Ali was ousted in January following a popular uprising and the country’s interim rulers have since initiated hundreds of corruption trials against the exiled dictator and his entourage.