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Lawyers for ex-Tunisian leader withdraw from trial

Lawyers for Tunisia's ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali withdrew from his trial in absentia on...

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Lawyers for Tunisia's ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali withdrew from his trial in absentia on drugs and weapons charges Monday, saying their client was not being treated fairly.

Ben Ali's ouster in January after weeks of protest inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. The former leader, who is now in Saudi Arabia, has already been sentenced to 35 years in prison on other charges.

At Monday's hearing, one of his lawyers, Husni Beji, asked the judge for a delay so that he could persuade Ben Ali to return to Tunisia to face trial. Judge Touhami Hafian refused to grant the petition.

"In that case we are withdrawing from this hearing, which does not meet the right to a fair trial," the lawyer said, after which the judge adjourned the hearing.

Members of the public in the courtroom shouted at Ben Ali's lawyers: "Get out! You have betrayed Tunisia by defending Ben Ali!" and "You should have defended the young people killed by Ben Ali's weapons!"

The judge resumed the hearing a short while later, without Ben Ali's defence lawyers present, and began reading the accusations against the former president.

Ben Ali is being tried on charges of possessing drugs with the intention to sell them, and of illegal possession of weapons. In a statement released last month, he said the charges were a fabrication. He said the weapons were ceremonial gifts and that the drugs were planted.

At the previous trial last month, he and his wife Leila Trabelsi were each given 35 years in prison after the court found them guilty of theft and of illegally possessing jewellery and large sums of cash.

A statement issued Monday by the Lebanese law firm which is also representing Ben Ali said the lawyers would not be taking part in the latest trial because it was a sham.

"Today's trial ... violates all the norms of a just trial," the statement said. "It aims to show president Ben Ali as a smuggler of currencies, drugs and weapons.