* Charges including illegal possession of drugs, jewelry
* Ben Ali has said case against him is politically-driven
* Tunisia revolution helped inspire “Arab Spring”
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, June 20 (Reuters) - Tunisia began the trial on Monday of former president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, whose ouster by protesters angry over corruption and police repression inspired the “Arab Spring” that has swept the region.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, after mass protests against 23 years of rule in which he, his wife and their family built stakes in the country’s biggest businesses and accumulated vast fortunes at what Tunisians say was their expense.
Tunisia’s revolt electrified millions across the Arab world, who suffer similarly from high unemployment, rising prices and repressive rule. Ben Ali’s trial will be watched closely in Egypt, where former president Hosni Mubarak is due to stand trial over the killing of protesters.
Judge Touhami Hafian, sitting in the Palace of Justice in the Tunisian capital, said the court would begin by hearing charges that Ben Ali was in unlawful possession of foreign currency, jewelry, archeological artefacts, drugs and weapons.
“This is a normal trial,” the judge said.
Speaking to Reuters before the hearing began, Husni Beji, one of five lawyers representing Ben Ali, told Reuters: “We are going to ask for an adjournment ... I want to convince Ben Ali to attend the trial.”
Since Ben Ali’s departure, most Tunisians have been preoccupied with deteriorating law and order and political instability as the caretaker authorities try to guide the country towards democracy.
But there is still deep-seated anger at Ben Ali’s rule, which many people say was characterised by repression and corruption on a grand scale involving members of Ben Ali’s extended family.
The Tunisian press, enjoying unprecedented freedom after years of state control, has carried numerous reports saying “The Family”, as Tunisians refer to them, had absconded from the country with large sums of money and gold.
More than 30 members of Ben Ali’s family and that of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, were arrested in the days following the fall of his regime. Some have since been charged with economic crimes and abuse of power.
Angry protesters looted and vandalised the luxury villas they owned in upscale coastal suburbs early on.
Ben Ali and his family built up interests in many Tunisian companies and industries during his two decades in power, including in hotels, banks, tuna exports, construction, newspapers and pharmaceuticals.
Tunisian officials have vowed to recover Ben Ali’s assets and return them to the state.
In a statement released by his lawyers on Sunday, the 74-year-old Ben Ali denied the charges against him.
He said the prosecution was an attempt by Tunisia’s new leaders to distract attention from their failure to restore stability in the six months since he left the country.
Ben Ali is also due to face a separate trial, in a Tunisian military court, on charges that include conspiring against the state and manslaughter. (Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Lin Noueihed)