As the Arab world watched Hosni Mubarak’s trial last week, transfixed by the sight of Egypt’s longtime leader behind a courtroom cage, Tunisia quietly released its reviled former justice minister.
The release came as Tunisians were still reeling from news that Saida Agreby, a high-profile figure in Tunisia’s old power elite accused of corruption, had fled to Paris without facing trial.
Seven months after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s overthrow sparked the “Arab Spring” protests that have shaken the Arab world, Tunisians say they are still waiting for justice, Reuters reports.
Whereas Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, appeared in an Egyptian court to face charges, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, have refused to return from exile in Saudi Arabia.
They have been sentenced in absentia, frustrating Tunisians thirsty for accountability after 23 years of stifling political repression, rampant corruption and flagrant nepotism.
“Trying Ben Ali in absentia is an empty gesture. It is hard to bring him back now but they should, at least, try the symbols of corruption who remain,” said Samy, a taxi driver.
“The trial of Mubarak is heroic. Even Mubarak is heroic because he did not run away. He is not a coward like Ben Ali.”
There was no official explanation for the ex-justice minister’s release but his case has not been formally closed.
Agreby was close to Ben Ali’s wife and was part of his inner circle.
It is no coincidence, many Tunisians say, that Agreby fled Tunisia just days before a prosecutor issued her a travel ban. Judicial sources said the ban was delayed due to a backlog, but Tunisians widely suspect that Agreby was tipped off.
Analysts and politicians say Ben Ali’s former allies are still in positions of power and working behind the scenes to save their friends, protect their interests and roll back the gains Tunisians have made since the president fled the country on January 14 after weeks of protests against his rule.
“The struggle now is between those who supported the Tunisian revolution and some pockets of the former regime who want to protect their previous political and economic interests,” said Sofiene Chourabi, a young journalist and activist blogger who helped the revolution spread from the marginalised interior to the capital Tunis in December.
“In this battle, the milestones of democratic transition, such as creating accountability, and justice and punishment, are still in a constant state of advance and retreat.”
On the day a Tunisian court tried dreaded former security chief Ali al-Seriati and 23 relatives of Ben Ali and Trabelsi, protesters gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of demonstrations that drove Ben Ali from power in January.
The relatives were captured at the airport as they prepared to flee with cash and jewellery on the night that Ben Ali left.
Dissatisfied with the trials, the releases and the transition towards elections set for October 23, Tunisians speak of a revolution “stolen” by the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime.
“They let well-known criminals go. These are signs of deep problems in the judiciary… There is no one to stop their counter-revolution except us, acting as individuals,” said Noomane Elkadri, a 39-year-old doctor, sitting on the steps of Tunisia’s national theatre, where the rally took place.
“We are protesting against the state of the judiciary in our country. We want an independent judiciary, which is critical at this stage to build our future.”
Of a total 10 million Tunisians, some 2 million were members of the RCD party through which Ben Ali ruled. The RCD has been dissolved since the revolution, the sign ripped off its imposing headquarters in the aftermath of his ouster. Members are now silent about their former loyalties, but they have not vanished.
In the Palace of Justice, Tunisian judges and lawyers in black cloaks float silently through ornate halls.
While lawyers and judges long played an important role in opposing Ben Ali’s arbitrary rule and took part in the protests that toppled him, Tunisians worry that Ben Ali’s political sympathisers are influencing court verdicts.
Tunisians are impatient with cases that have been repeatedly postponed. One such trial is that of Houssem Trabelsi over the 2007 death of seven people in a crush at an event he organised.
Tunisians acknowledge progress has been made. In the old Tunisia, such cases would never have been tried. Yet they feel that, unless they keep up the pressure, their gains may be lost.
More demonstrations are planned to demand a judicial overhaul to ensure that more than 100 people killed during the protests that forced Ben Ali to flee did not die in vain.
“Until now, not one of those who killed the martyrs in the revolution has been jailed,” said Sameh Tweiti, a 25-year-old who said he took part in those protests.
“What does that tell you?”