A Tunisian military appeals court upheld the convictions against ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on Saturday for torturing military officers over an alleged coup plot in 1991. The appeals court reduced the four-year sentences against individuals formerly in Ben Ali's government, including the interior minister and head of state security, by two years from four years, but upheld Ben Ali's five-year sentence [AFP report]. The sentence against Ben Ali was handed down in absentia because he fled Tunisia in January 2011 and has been in exile in Saudi Arabia since then. Defense lawyers stated that the charges were baseless and that the incident was just a "state security issue." Defense lawyers stated that they intend to appeal the ruling. Ben Ali has also been sentenced to an additional 15 years on drug and gun charges [JURIST report] and another 35 years on theft and unlawful possession of jewelry charges.
Ben Ali fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia in January 2011 during protests against his 23-year autocratic rule in which his family amassed substantial wealth [Reuters report] that many Tunisians say was at their expense. Ben Ali has indicated that he was "duped" into leaving [AFP report] the capital Tunis, according to a statement released through his lawyer. He said that he was trying to get his family out of the country after assassination threats and that the plane left him in Saudi Arabia despite orders to wait for him. Ben Ali has denied the charges against him [JURIST report] which stem mostly from allegations that he authorized the use of force against protesters during the Tunisian revolution, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi [profile, in French] announced the issuance of an arrest warrant for Ben Ali in January 2011, though the country has not received a response to its request to extradite [JURIST reports] the former leader from Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile. Chebbi announced that Ben Ali had been charged with 18 offenses [JURIST report] in April 2011.