- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia — A court Monday sentenced the former Tunisian president to 15½ years in prison for smuggling drugs, guns and archaeological artifacts, in the latest trial in absentia of the deposed autocrat.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali will also be fined $72,000. The verdict follows a trial two weeks ago in which he and his wife each received sentences of 35 years in prison and $64 million in fines for embezzlement and other charges. Authorities say another 91 charges remain just for the civil courts.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron hand for more than two decades before fleeing to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, after a monthlong popular uprising that heralded the start of a wave of protests for greater freedoms across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has declined to answer Tunisia’s request to extradite the former president.

Monday’s one-day trial began with the public defenders assigned to plead Ben Ali’s case walking out of the courtroom after their request for more time was turned down.

The trial continued in their absence, with prosecutors citing the discovery of weapons and drugs as well as archaeological treasures in Ben Ali’s palace in Carthage. They also cited the testimony of the head of his personal guard and one of his bodyguards.

Ben Ali has claimed in a statement that the jewels and weapons were gifts from heads of state and the money and drugs were planted.

The former president has foreign attorneys, but Tunisian law says lawyers from other countries cannot represent clients being tried in absentia. As a result, court-appointed lawyers Hosni Beji and Bechir Mahfoudhi were assigned to defend Ben Ali on Monday.

Mr. Beji asked the judge for sufficient time to contact his client and persuade him to attend the trial, while his colleague asked for another delay so that they could better prepare the defense. Their requests were denied.

“We would have liked a fair trial,” said Mr. Beji, before leaving with his colleague. As they left the court, the lawyers were booed by onlookers, who shouted they should resign.

“Good riddance, you would have done better defending the victims of Ben Ali rather than be the lawyers for a torturer,” said Ali Laayouni, a young unemployed university graduate from the center of the country where the rebellion first broke out.

In addition to the civil cases, there are another 182 counts that fall under military jurisdiction, some of which could result in a death sentence, including his role in the deaths of 300 people during the uprisings.

Ben Ali’s foreign attorneys have dismissed the trials as rigged and part of a campaign to demonize the former president at the behest of Tunisia’s new rulers.

“Today’s trial, like the past verdict and the 93 trials announced is judicially nonexistent because it violates practically every criteria for a fair trial,” said Akram Azoury, Ben Ali’s Lebanese lawyer, in a statement.