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In Tunisia's sentencing of a dictator, a model for bringing justice?

A Tunisian court yesterday sentenced Ben Ali to life in prison. The country's efforts to bring former regime members to justice could offer lessons for other Arab Spring countries.

By Correspondent / June 14, 2012

Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is pictured in this April 2008 file photo. A Tunisian court Wednesday sentenced Ben Ali to life in prison.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters/File

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Tunis, Tunisia

On Jan. 13, 2011, Taher Merghni was peddling home from his job building sidewalks when he was thrown to earth by a policeman’s bullet, says his sister, Mounira Merghini.

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“He was just a working man,” she says. “Working day and night to feed his children.”

Caught between police and rioters, Mr. Merghni became one of 132 people killed during the uprising that brought down the regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and started a wave of Arab revolt.

Like other countries emerging from dictatorship, Tunisia now faces the delicate process of transitional justice: holding accountable those responsible for crimes while uncovering the truth about how – and why – they occurred. That could offer lessons for Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and Libya, where the fall of dictators offers a chance to lay history bare.

“Tunisia is basically doing the right thing, and I hope will serve as a model," says Claudio Cordone, Program Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based NGO that is advising the Tunisian government.

Yesterday a military court in Le Kef, 106 miles west of Tunis, sentenced Mr. Ben Ali in absentia to life in prison for conspiring to murder protesters in two rural cities. In addition, a dozen security officials got up to 15 years in prison and nine were acquitted. A military court in Tunis is trying Ben Ali and some of the same security officials for the deaths of protestors there.

Those trials are just a start. Decades of authoritarian rule have left countless other abuses to address. A commission set up after Ben Ali’s departure to document alleged corruption linked to his regime cited 10,062 claims in a report last December.

The aim of transitional justice is both to punish the guilty and inspire reforms to ensure that abuses are not repeated, says Mr. Cordone. Tunisia must first answer key questions, from whether and how to compensate victims to the scope and make-up of a possible truth commission.

“These things need to be discussed by society at large. It takes time, and it’s important that all initiatives are integrated into an overall strategy,” Cordone says.

In April the government started a consultation program on transitional justice with political parties and civil society groups. Last year courts – often prompted by victims of Ben Ali’s regime – began opening trials against him and other senior regime figures.

Ben Ali's rise and fall

Ben Ali came to power in 1987 after sidelining his ailing predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who had ruled Tunisia since it gained independence from France in 1956.

Beneath a sheen of modernity was a police state that jailed and tortured critics, censored media, and spied on citizens while Ben Ali and his family muscled their way into major businesses.

"Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage," wrote then-US Ambassador Robert Godec in a June 2008 diplomatic cable on corruption in Tunisia that was published by Wikileaks in December 2010.

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