A military court is set to hand down a verdict for ousted strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, charged over the deaths of 22 anti-government protesters during Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution.
Living in exile in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali is being tried in absentia along with 22 co-accused, including two former interior ministers, for the killings in the northwestern towns of Thala and Kasserine.
The court has been mulling the verdict for the past week after a six-month trial that has embittered the victims’ families, convinced they will never know the truth about the killings.
Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, faces the death penalty for voluntary homicide or complicity in the deaths, while the military prosecutor has requested “the toughest penalties possible” -- life imprisonment, according to lawyers -- for his co-defendants.
The victims’ families and their supporters say the trial of the exiled Ben Ali is no more than a smokescreen, a populist ploy aimed at veiling the truth and appeasing the plaintiffs.
They fear the truth will never come out about who gave the orders to fire on demonstrators in a crackdown that left some 600 wounded in addition to the 22 dead.
“We don’t want pity,” said Helmi Chniti, whose brother Ghassen was killed in Thala on January 8, 2011. “I’ve devoted all my time for the past year and a half to uncover the truth, and today there are still burning questions with no answers.”
Those who died in Thala and Kasserine were among more than 330 Tunisians who were killed during the popular uprising sparked when a vegetable seller set himself ablaze over ill-treatment by police on December 17, 2010.
Defendants at the trial in Kef, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Tunis, have pinned responsibility on a “security monitoring cell” or “the operations room” of the interior ministry -- without ever naming names.
“We don’t give a damn about Ben Ali!” said one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Anouar El-Bassi. “It’s a masquerade. Whatever happens, the verdict will be unfair and the truth will not come out.”
His colleague Hayet Jazzar added: “The Tunisian people and history need to know what happened, but I’m afraid that this will end with big payouts for the families, while what they want is truth and justice.”
She said requests for ballistic analyses, records of police deployments, transcripts of orders from the interior ministry’s command Centre and telephone conversations have all been in vain.
Jazzar and the victims’ families are also indignant that so few of the defendants are in custody.
The defense, for its part, has asserted that the trial has proceeded correctly.
“We have been heard, we have been able to argue properly,” said Sami Bargaoui, who has asked for the dismissal of charges against his client, the prominent former director of anti-riot police Moncef Laajimi.
“It’s a very sensitive trial,” he admitted.
Some point to a precedent in Egypt, where the June 2 verdict against ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak was seen as far too lenient.
Mubarak, 84, and his interior minister Habib al-Adly were sentenced to life in prison, but six security chiefs were acquitted of the killings of demonstrators during last year’s uprising that left some 850 people dead and ousted the veteran president.
Amna Guellali, a Human Rights Watch representative who attended Ben Ali’s trial, said she had a “nuanced view of a very complex trial.”
“The rights of the defense were respected overall,” she said. “The right to the truth demanded by the victims indeed remains a question mark. And it remains an open question whether military courts are competent to try this kind of case.”
Ben Ali has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on a range of other charges including drug trafficking and embezzlement.