Death penalty requested in Tunisian dictator trial

May 24, 2012 - 1:17 PM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The prosecutor in a military tribunal has demanded the death penalty for Tunisia's former dictator over his role in the deaths of protesters during the popular uprising that overthrew him a year ago.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and is being tried in absentia by both military and civilian courts in Tunisia for alleged crimes committed during his 23-year, iron-fisted rule of the North African country.

Ben Ali is currently on trial for ordering soldiers to open fire on protesters in the four southern towns of Thala, Kasserine, Kairouan and Tajerouine during the early weeks of the month-long uprising that began in December 2010. At least 338 people died in the uprising and another 2,147 were wounded.

The revolution in Tunisia sparked a wave of pro-democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa that overthrew several governments and became known as the Arab Spring.

Wednesday's demand by the prosecutor is the first time the death penalty has been requested against Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011.

Ben Ali's lawyer, Lebanese attorney Akram Azouri, has dismissed this trial, as well as the previous ones, as political in nature and violating the tenets of international law.

"All the officials interrogated over this issue firmly denied that President Ben Ali gave the orders to use live ammunition," he said in a statement Thursday. "I ask the judiciary to listen to the recordings of the communications between the presidential palace, the Ministry of Interior and the Defense Ministry during this period."

Ben Ali has already been convicted of drug trafficking, illegal arms trading and abuse of the public funds and sentenced to 66 years in prison by a civilian court.

A second military trial is also underway over the deaths of protesters in the north of the country.

Tunisia has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali so he can face the charges in person.