Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s trial begins today, making the former Tunisian president the first deposed Middle East leader to face trial in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. Ben Ali, who will be tried in absentia, faces charges including abusing state funds, drug trafficking, and illegal arms possession. His clan, known as “The Family,” controlled as much as one-third of Tunisia’s economy, and was known to flaunt that wealth. An examination of criminal court papers by the Wall Street Journal reveals allegations that “The Family” used political pressure to win lucrative state contracts over business rivals.
“A request amounted to an order,” says one businessman who claims he was forced to sell his 3% stake in the country’s largest bank to a Ben Ali nephew. Another entrepreneur says Ben Ali’s administration blocked him from opening a French car dealership by tying up some of his vehicles at customs for months and saddling him with 17 tax inspections; yet another abandoned plans to open a pharmacy university when Ben Ali insisted the proceeds be split 50-50 with him. Ben Ali, who is still in Saudi Arabia, will also face charges of high treason, torture, and murder at a military trial in the future. He is also the target of a French money laundering probe.