A Tunisian court sentenced Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to life Wednesday for his role in the deaths of protesters during last year’s uprising which toppled the veteran dictator and inspired the Arab Spring revolutions.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Ben Ali, who is exiled in Saudi Arabia, over the killing of 22 people while trying to douse the revolt in the two central cities of Thala and Kasserine.
The ruling came after a six-month trial at the military court in Kef, located about 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Tunis.
Former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem was also sentenced to 12 years in jail over the case.
Of the 23 senior officials on trial for killing protesters in the towns of Kasserine, Tala, Kairouan and Tajrouine, 14 were acquitted including Ben Ali’s presidential security chief Ali Seriati and Ahmed Friaa, who was appointed interior minister shortly before the president fled.
Those acquittals are likely to provoke anger among the families of the victims who have waited almost 18 months for justice to served.
“The verdict is unjust. The sentences are light, these sentences have been affected by political pressure. The court has fallen into a trap,” Chardedine Glail, the lawyer representing the families of the victims, told Reuters.
“How can Ben Ali get life when he is charged with a role in the deaths whereas Kacem gets 12 years when he is charged with killing.”
“The judge could not fully read the verdict because of the ruckus,” lawyer Abdelkarim Maghouri, who followed the trial, told AFP.
But judge Chokri Mejri said: “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.”
Earlier Wednesday, a Tunis military court sentenced Ben Ali in absentia to 20 years’ imprisonment on various charges including incitement to murder.
Ben Ali was found guilty of “inciting disorder, murder and looting,” the court said in its verdict over the deaths of four youths, shot dead in the town of Ouardanine in mid-January 2011.
The weeks of protests that started in December 2010 toppled one of the most entrenched autocratic regimes in the Arab world and led to democratic elections in October that saw a moderate Islamist party rise to power.
The strongman’s ouster toppled the first domino in the wave of protests which became known as the Arab Spring and is still sweeping the region.
Ben Ali faces countless trials and has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on a range of other charges including drug trafficking and embezzlement.
He and his wife are the subject of an international arrest warrant, but Saudi authorities have not responded to Tunisian extradition requests.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s government has already faced criticism over its failure to persuade Saudi Arabia to hand over Ben Ali and his wife, a former hairdresser whose lavish lifestyle and clique of wealthy relatives came to be seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of the corrupt era.