(Adds background on extradition request)
* Court finds Ben Ali and wife guilty of theft
* Former first couple also fined $66 million
* Ousted president called trial a political plot
* Tunisian revolution helped inspire “Arab Spring”
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, Jun 20 (Reuters) - A Tunisian court sentenced former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in absentia on Monday to 35 years in jail, six months after his overthrow in a revolution helped to inspire the “Arab Spring”.
Ben Ali, who has been in Saudi Arabia since he was forced from power, was found guilty after just one day of deliberation of theft and of illegally possessing jewellery and large sums of cash.
The same sentence was handed down to his wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whose lavish lifestyle and clique of wealthy relatives were symbols of the corruption of the Ben Ali era for many Tunisians.
Ben Ali and his wife flew to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 after mass protests against his 23-year rule. The Tunisian government said in February it had asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali.
During his time in office, members of his extended family accumulated fortunes while his security forces routinely arrested anyone who dared to dissent.
Tunisia’s revolt electrified millions across the Arab world who suffer similarly from high unemployment, rising prices and repressive governments. Ben Ali’s case has been watched closely in Egypt, where former president Hosni Mubarak is due to stand trial over the killing of protesters.
In a statement issued by his lawyers earlier on Monday, Ben Ali denied all the charges against him, saying that he was the victim of a political plot. He said he had been tricked into leaving the country.
“What a moment,” said Meriam, a student who was one of a handful of people waiting late into the evening outside the courthouse to hear the verdict. “After 23 years when he manipulated the courts, today a very fair court has returned to us a little bit of our honour.”
“My brother was put in prison for nothing ... and the other one was forced to stay in Europe in exile for nine years,” she said. “This (verdict) gives us some peace.”
Judge Touhami Hafian, who read out the verdict and sentence in the Palace of Justice in the Tunisian capital, also ruled that Ben Ali and his wife would have to pay fines totalling 91 million Tunisian dinars ($65.6 million).
The judge said the verdict on other charges, relating to illegal possession of drugs and weapons, would be handed down on June 30, according to a Reuters reporter who was in the courtroom.
During the hearing, a prosecutor had asked the judge to hand down “the most severe punishments for those who betrayed the trust and stole the money of the people for their personal gain .... They did not stop stealing for 23 years”.
Ben Ali’s defence lawyers refused to comment after the sentence was passed. Abderrazak Kilani, a senior lawyer who was not involved in the trial, told Reuters: “They have been given the heaviest sentence in this type of case.”
Earlier, Ben Ali’s lawyers had given the first detailed account of the events that led to his departure from Tunisia.
At the time, thousands of protesters had gathered in the centre of the capital Tunis to demand that he step down, the culmination of three weeks of demonstrations which police tried to disperse by firing on the crowds.
The statement issued by his lawyers said that the head of presidential security had come to Ben Ali in his office and told him that “friendly” foreign intelligence services had passed on information about a plot to assassinate the president.
He was persuaded to get on a plane that was taking his wife and children to safety in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but with the intention of returning immediately, the statement said.
“He boarded the plane with his family after ordering the crew to wait for him in Jeddah. But after his arrival in Jeddah, the plane returned to Tunisia without waiting for him, contrary to his orders.
“He did not leave his post as president of the republic and hasn’t fled Tunisia as he was falsely accused of doing,” the statement said.
Ben Ali’s version of events is unlikely to draw sympathy from the majority of Tunisians. They are now enjoying relative freedom after decades when most people would not speak openly for fear of arrest by the secret police.
In his statement released on Monday, Ben Ali said the weapons he was accused of possessing illegally were gifts from other heads of state and the jewellery had been given as presents to his wife by foreign dignitaries.
The money and drugs had been planted in his home and the presidential palace after his departure as part of the plot against him, he said in the statement. (Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by David Stamp and Elizabeth Fullerton) ($1=1.387 Tunisian Dinar)