Tunisia seeks arrest of ousted president

Tunisia has asked Interpol to help find and arrest ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family so they can be tried for theft and currency offences.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 when weeks of violent protests against poverty, repression and corruption toppled him after 23 years in power.

The uprising has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries face similar problems.

The French-based international police organisation said it had issued a global alert to seek the location and arrest of Ben Ali and six of his relatives.

In Tunis, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said the interim government which came to power after the revolt wanted to bring to justice Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members.

“We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman, for trial in Tunisia,” he said.

Under this type of alert, Interpol said it had requested member countries to locate and provisionally arrest the suspects with a view to their extradition to Tunis.

“Interpol does not send officials to carry out arrests; these are made by national law enforcement officials in line with their national laws,” it said in a statement.

Chebbi said that six members of the presidential guard would be put on trial for inciting violence after Ben Ali’s departure.

Inspired by Tunisia’s example, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, clashing with police who fired tear gas and used water cannon.

In Tunisia, ministers said the interim government, which has struggled to assert itself in the face of protesters’ demands to sack Ben Ali loyalists, would be reshuffled later in the day.

The interior, defence and foreign ministers will be replaced, political sources said, in a move that could appease protesters.

Ruling party
Protesters have been demanding for days that the interim government be purged of Ben Ali’s loyalists, and demonstrators clashed with police again on Wednesday.

Despite the clashes, the interim government announced it would reduce the curfew, in place since the revolt, by several hours, effective from Wednesday night.

Clashes broke out near government offices in the old city, or casbah, where riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators, mainly teenagers and young men, who threw stones.

The protesters appeared to be Tunisians from the rural hinterland who have been camping out at the government compound.

They shouted at the security forces that they were the “police of Leila”, a reference to Ben Ali’s unpopular wife, who was seen as having excessive influence and lavish tastes.

The Tunisian General Labour Union announced a general strike on Wednesday in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city and economic centre, where thousands of protesters demanded the government resign.

In Tunis, protesters managed to get into the building where the justice minister was speaking and crowded around him after his news conference to petition him about relatives who are still in prison.

During his 23 years in power, Ben Ali amassed vast riches and his family controlled many of Tunisia’s biggest companies.

In Switzerland, a government spokesperson said funds worth tens of millions of Swiss francs have been reported by banks and financial institutions since the government froze all assets belonging to Ben Ali and his entourage.

“We cannot give a precise number as this is evolving,” said spokesperson Andre Simonazzi, adding that the interim government had filed a request for Swiss legal assistance on Tuesday.

Such a request kicks off the process of reclaiming any money illegally stashed away in the Alpine country.

Chebbi said that, in the disorder that followed the fall of Ben Ali, about 11 000 prisoners had escaped from Tunisian jails, about one third of the total jail population.

On January 15, the day after Ben Ali fled, dozens of inmates were reported to have been killed in a mass breakout from a prison in the town of Mahdia. The same day, 42 inmates were killed in a prison riot in Monastir in what was described by a hospital official as “complete chaos”.

Chebbi said 2 460 prisoners had been released since Ben Ali fell. It was not clear how many of them had been in jail for political crimes, but the government said earlier it was releasing all political prisoners.

US Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, visiting Tunis, encouraged the interim government to do more to satisfy popular demands, and said Washington was ready to help Tunisia in preparing for its first free elections.
- Reuters

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