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Ousted Tunisian leader sentenced to over 15 years in prison

By Houda Zaghdoudi, For CNN
Ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia to 15 and a half years in prison on weapon and drug charges.
Ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia to 15 and a half years in prison on weapon and drug charges.
  • NEW: Zine el Abidine Ben Ali is sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison
  • Ben Ali was tried partly on illegal drug and weapons charges
  • Ben Ali was tried in absentia; he and his wife have been living in Saudi Arabia since January
  • Couple were sentenced last month to 35 years in prison on corruption charges

(CNN) -- Ousted Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was sentenced Monday to 15 and a half years in prison on charges related to the alleged discovery of weapons, archaeological artifacts and illegal drugs -- including marijuana -- in his country's presidential palace.

Ben Ali's one-day trial and sentencing were conducted in absentia. The former strongman and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, have been living in exile in Saudi Arabia since the January revolt that ended his 23-year rule and touched off a wave of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

Both Ben Ali and Trabelsi were sentenced last month to 35 years in prison on corruption charges. In addition to the prison term, the court imposed a fine of 91 million dinars ($65 million).

Ben Ali and members of his inner circle are also facing a series of charges relating to alleged murder and torture. Those charges have been referred to a Tunisian military court, according to the state news agency TAP.

Monday's trial -- initially scheduled to begin Thursday -- was held in a packed courtroom in Tunis.

Hosni Beji, one of the lawyers representing Ben Ali, earlier asked the presiding judge, Touhami Hafi, to postpone the trial in part to give him time to persuade the former ruler to return to Tunisia.

Beji said he is planning to meet Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Beji's request, which was refused, triggered a series of angry outbursts from other people in the courtroom.

Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia since 1987. Protests began to erupt in December after the self-immolation of a fruit vendor whose cart had been seized by police.

The vendor's fiery suicide touched off a firestorm among Tunisians fed up with corruption, high unemployment and escalating food prices. The revolt that followed left at least 300 people dead and 700 wounded, a United Nations human rights expert recently said.

The former strongman's political party has since been dissolved by a court order, and parliamentary elections have been scheduled for this month.

Ben Ali argued in June that he has been unfairly portrayed and discredited by political opponents seeking to make a break with their country's past. In a written statement released by one of his attorneys, Ben Ali said he was "tired of being made a scapegoat" and is a victim of "injustice."

The former leader said that searches of his official and personal offices were "merely stage dressing" meant to discredit him.

Contrary to the assertions of his opponents, Ben Ali argued that he worked for what he thought "was the good of the Tunisian people, improving living standards and progressing on the path to modernity."

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

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