Tunisia ex-chief, now in exile, gets life sentence

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By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA, Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A military court on Wednesday convicted Tunisia's former dictator in absentia for his role in the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the country's interior, ordering him to serve life in prison — the harshest sentence to date in a slew of cases against the ousted president.

Tunisians overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year after a month-long uprising, and he fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011. His fall inspired the Arab Spring revolutionary movements that have since spread across North Africa and the Middle East.

Tunisia's uprising began in its hardscrabble interior, and in the first weeks some 20 protesters were shot dead by police in the towns of Kasserine and Thala, the focus of one of two military trials Ben Ali faced in 24 hours. The prosecutor in the case had originally asked for the death penalty, but the judge decided upon life in prison.

Earlier, a military court convicted Ben Ali of having ordered security forces to fire on protesters in the town of Ouardanine who were trying to stop the president's nephew Kais from also fleeing the country. Four people died in that encounter, and the court sentenced Ben Ali to 20 years in prison in the case.

Wednesday's rulings come on top of convictions by civilian courts, where Ben Ali faced charges of drug trafficking, illegal arms trading and abuse of public funds and was sentenced to 66 years in prison.

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

At least 338 people died in Tunisia's uprising, and another 2,147 were wounded.

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