Former Tunisian President Zein ElAbedine Ben Ali’s lawyer Akram Azouri refuted allegations about his client’s escape from Tunisia following the protests, denied that he issued orders to shoot protestors, and contested reports about his wealth.
“Ben Ali left Tunisia on January 14, 2011 in what he planned would be a short trip as he expected to return within a few hours,” Azouri told Al Arabiya’s Point of Order Friday.
Azouri explained that Ben Ali decided to take his wife and son to Jeddah after his security chief General Ali al-Seriati told him about a plot to assassinate him.
“Seriati asked Ben Ali to leave the country for a few hours until he could uncover the details of the plot.”
After arriving at Jeddah, Azouri added, Ben Ali was shocked to see that the presidential plane had left without him.
“The pilot and the head of Tunis Air bear witness to the incident.”
Azouri, however, did not reveal the reasons for Seriati’s action or what he aimed to gain from it.
The scenario that could have happened in case Ben Ali had stayed in Tunisia was not, Azouri pointed out, necessarily similar to that of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
“His chances were not that bad. On January 13, 2011 he gave a speech in which he announced his intention to implement a series of reforms. This could have ended well.”
Azouri denied that Ben Ali ordered the police or the army to shoot at protestors and called for the recordings of calls between the former president and the ministries of interior and defense to be made public to prove that.
“If protestors were shot, this must have happened under very exceptional circumstances. Officers are entitled to protect themselves and the places they guard if they are attacked.”
Azouri distinguished between political responsibility and criminal liability and said the first applies to Ben Ali while the second doesn’t.
“Ben Ali bears political responsibility for anything that happened during his rule, but legally he is not responsible for the shooting of protestors because he did not give instructions to that effect.”
Azouri cited the example of post-Mubarak turmoil in Egypt where many protestors were killed.
“The Egyptian military council said it did not order the shooting of protesters, but it is possible that officers were in a state of self-defense. This should be judged on a case-by-case basis because shooting peaceful protestors is a very serious accusation.”
Azouri also denied reports about Ben Ali’s fortune and said that after being notified of the financial charges leveled at his client, he contacted the authorities in Switzerland and France, where the president allegedly kept his money.
“I challenged them to announce the amounts Ben Ali owned in their banks and I never got a response. However, they told me verbally that the former president had no money in either of the two countries.”
Legally speaking, Azouri noted, it is not Ben Ali’s duty to prove he has no money, but it is rather the duty of whoever made those claims to prove he does.
The real problem, Azouri added, lies in Ben Ali’s possessions inside Tunisia which were seized by the authorities after he was toppled.
“They did that without a court ruling and sold his belongings in a public auction.”
Azouri, who submitted a complaint against the Tunisian authorities at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights for not being allowed to attend his client’s trial, said he will contest the verdicts issued against Ben Ali in absentia.
“As soon as the Tunisian authorities allow me to defend Ben Ali, I will appeal and the verdicts will prove void.”
Despite stressing that he is not in a position to evaluate the Tunisian judiciary, Azouri argued that Ben Ali’s trial was not fair.
“The verdict was issued only a few hours after the trial had started and after only listening to the prosecution.”
Azouri added that he is also in charge of defending the former president in lawsuits concerning the drugs and money said to have been found two months after he had left and the weapons he reportedly possessed as well as corruption charges.
“So far, there hasn’t been any piece of evidence presented against Ben Ali that I am not able to refute.”
According to Azouri, Ben Ali does not mind being held accountable for his actions, yet is shocked at the way his image is being tarnished.
“It makes him very sad to see that he was turned into a drug dealer because of two kilograms of hash he allegedly possessed.”
While stating that his mission does not include the evaluation of Tunisia under Ben Ali, Azouri argued that before the revolution the country enjoyed a great deal of security and stability.
“Growth rate in Tunisia was estimated at 5 percent per year and I hope the new government will be able to achieve something close. However, my job is to defend Ben Ali and not to evaluate him.”
For Azouri, the Tunisian revolution was triggered by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi rather than by the political conditions in the whole country.
“Bouazizi’s action was a personal call for help and not an ideological issue.”
When asked about his trust in the Tunisian judiciary, Azouri said that it is very hard for the judges to issue an objective verdict in the light of the pressure they are currently facing.
“When the president is in power, everyone vies for getting close to him, but when he is ousted they all vie for condemning him as a means of acquitting themselves.”
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)