A Tunisian court sentenced ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in absentia, to life in prison for presiding over the bloody protest crackdown that ignited the Arab Spring.
Former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem and several more of Ben Ali’s inner circle on Wednesday received sentences of up to 15 years in prison, but other key figures saw their charges dismissed, much to the anger of victims’ families.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Ben Ali — who fled after his ouster and is living in exile in Saudi Arabia — over the killing of 22 people while clamping down on the central cities of Thala and Kasserine.
“We tried to hand down a fair verdict, and nobody put any pressure on us. We were only guided by God and our own personal conviction,” civilian judge Chokri Mejri said at the end of the six-month trial in Kef, west of Tunis.
The court drew angry cries from victims’ families outside when it dropped charges against 10 officials, including former presidential guard chief Ali Seriati and the former director of Tunisia’s riot police, Moncef Laajimi.
“Revenge! Revenge!” they shouted, according to Abdelkarim Maghouri, a lawyer present at the hearing. “The judge could not fully read the verdict because of the ruckus,” Maghouri told AFP.
Wasfi Seihi, whose cousin Wajdi was killed in Thala, said: “The judge should have pronounced the death penalty for all the accused.”
Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old vegetable seller from the central town of Sidi Bouzid, inspired the Tunisian revolt in December 2010 when he set himself on fire and died in protest at official corruption.
His suicide set off weeks of protests that ended up toppling one of the most entrenched autocratic regimes in the Arab world and led to democratic elections last October that saw a moderate Islamist party rise to power.
The ouster of Ben Ali launched a wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa that became known as the Arab Spring and is still sweeping the region.
Wednesday’s convictions were the first of senior regime personnel over the killing of hundreds of protesters during the Tunisian revolution.
But there were fears that anger over the acquittals of several key figures and lingering doubts that Ben Ali will ever be brought to justice could see fresh violence.
“I fear that this judgment will cause unrest,” Anouar el-Bassi, a lawyer for victims’ families, told AFP. “Two former pillars of the forces of order” were acquitted, he said, referring to Laajimi and senior interior ministry official Moncef Krifa.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s government on Wednesday blamed Salafists and old regime loyalists for the worst unrest since Ben Ali’s ouster but dismissed suggestions that Al-Qaeda initiated the violence.
One man died and around 100 people were injured, including 65 policemen, as a result of a three-day wave of riots which appears to have been triggered by an art exhibition that included works deemed offensive to Islam.
The authorities arrested more than 160 people and slapped a curfew on several regions, including the greater Tunis area. The overnight curfew was eased by two hours on Wednesday, to run from 10:00 pm to 4:00 am.
A joint statement by the leaders of Tunisia’s government, constituent assembly and presidency condemned “extremist groups who threaten freedoms,” in a thinly-veiled reference to the ultra-conservative Salafists.
The government is led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, while the presidency and the post of parliament speaker are held by the two parties that came second and third in the post-revolution polls.
The trio also pointed a finger at former members of the Ben Ali regime, who have been accused of encouraging Salafist groups to stir up trouble between Islamists and secularists to destabilise the country.
Ben Ali faces countless trials and has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on a range of charges including drug trafficking and embezzlement.
A military court in Tunis sentenced him earlier on Wednesday to 20 years’ imprisonment on charges that included incitement to murder.
Ben Ali was found guilty of “inciting disorder, murder and looting,” the Tunis court said in its verdict over the killing of four youths in the town of Ouardanine in mid-January 2011.
Ben Ali and his wife are the subject of an international arrest warrant, but Saudi authorities have not responded to Tunisian extradition requests.