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Tunisian military tribunal seeks death penalty for Ben Ali

A Tunisian military prosecutor demanded the death penalty Wednesday for ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is being tried in absentia over killings during last year's popular uprising.

Defence lawyers and the victims' relatives alike were surprised by the decision, as Ben Ali is charged only with "complicity in voluntary homicide" while others are accused of direct involvement.

Aside from seeking the death penalty for Ben Ali, the prosecutor at the military tribunal also sought the "toughest penalties possible" for his 22 co-defendants, a court official told AFP.

They are ex-senior officials being prosecuted for the deaths of at least 22 people during the January 2011 pro-democracy protests in the towns of Thala and Kasserine.

Many of the victims died when security forces fired live rounds.

It is the first time the death penalty has been sought against the ousted longtime dictator, although he has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on a range of other charges including drug trafficking and embezzlement.

Ben Ali was absent for those court cases, having fled Tunisia on January 14 to seek exile in Saudi Arabia.

He and his wife are the subject of an international arrest warrant, but Saudi authorities have not responded to Tunisian extradition requests.

Several lawyers reacted with surprise to the death penalty request.

"Ben Ali isn't the main player in these killings, he's being tried for complicity, yet the prosecutor is asking for a tougher penalty against him than those who've been charged with homicide," said Abderraouf Ayadi, a lawyer for the families of those killed.

"Prosecutors are trying to placate the families of the martyrs, rather than find the true culprits," he said.

Othman Oueslati, a lawyer for another defendant, former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, said his client had "never received from Ben Ali instructions to kill."

"This trial is lacking in form and substance," he said, according to the news agency TAP.

But former prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who led the first post-Ben Ali government, has blamed his former boss.

In January this year, he testified that he called on Ben Ali to tell security forces to stop shooting live rounds against residents in Kasserine.

Ben Ali supposedly then said such tactics could be justified as self-defence.

The protest against Ben Ali's autocratic rule triggered what would become the Arab Spring uprisings that swept other strongmen from power across the Arab world.

Among those on trial in the case are former interior ministers Kacem and Ahmed Friaa, as well as former security chiefs Adel Tiouiri and Jalel Bourdiga.

During the trial, none of the defendants has admitted giving the order to open fire on protesters and no one has named names.

Defence arguments are scheduled to get under way in the coming days.

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