Tunisia in Spat With Seychelles Over Ben Ali Son-in-Law
Tunisia’s government is locked in a diplomatic battle with the tiny African island nation of Seychelles in hopes of winning the extradition of one of its most-wanted men, the flamboyant, jet-setting son-in-law of deposed leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The son-in-law is Saker el-Materi, a man reputed to keep pet tigers and to enjoy fine cigars, and whose wealth increased dramatically after marrying the former president’s daughter in the mid-2000s, a process that Tunisian judicial authorities allege was due to corruption and abuse of power.
Like most of the former ruling family, Mr. Materi fled Tunisia in early 2011 before public protests overthrew Mr. Ben Ali, yet he did not follow his in-laws to Saudi Arabia. Instead, he has been living in the Gulf Arab nation of Qatar, before flying to the island resort nation of Seychelles late last year.
Tunisian courts have convicted Mr. Materi in absentia on corruption charges, and have sentenced him to 16 years in prison and fined him 97 million Tunisian dinars. They have also convicted Ben Ali and his wife, plus other members of the extended clan, of corruption and abuse of power. Known colloquially as “The Family,” the Ben Ali clan is reviled by many Tunisians for their immense wealth and alleged strong-arm tactics in taking over thriving businesses during Mr. Ben Ali’s three-decade rule.
Mr. Ben Ali and his wife haven’t spoken publicly since their flight to Saudi Arabia. But lawyers for the family have said they aren’t guilty of any crimes.
Despite an Interpol warrant for his arrest and the prior conviction in Tunisia, the Seychelles allowed Mr. Materi into the country in December 2012. It is unclear how he was allowed to stay, however, as Tunisian media have reported that he arrived on an expired Tunisian diplomatic passport.
Since then, Seychelles has ducked the insistent requests to expel him to Tunis, citing a lack of extradition treaties between the two nations.
Saudi Arabia also has ignored numerous requests by Tunisia to hand over Mr. Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser turned First Lady.
Tunisia’s new foreign minister, Othman Jerandi, denounced the authorities in Seychelles earlier this week for failing to hand over Mr. Materi. In a phone call Monday to his counterpart in Victoria, Seychelles, he reiterated Tunisia’s promise for fair court hearings against its former rulers, according to Tunisia’s state news agency.
Seychelles, a country that has had its own one-party rule for several years and whose government has a checkered human rights record, has confirmed that it has given Mr. Materi a one-year residency permit, according to the Tunisian government.
Tunisia’s new democratically elected government has won strong international support in its quest to fight financial crimes committed under its former regime – and it has racked up more success than other Arab Spring nations in winning back illicit gains stashed abroad by their former rulers.
Earlier this month, Tunisian authorities received $28 million dollars from the Lebanese government from a bank account kept in Beirut by the president’s wife. Italian authorities have also returned a yacht registered to the wife.
The extended Ben Ali family controlled an estimated one-third of the Tunisian economy by the time that the president was forced out of office in January 2011. Mr. Materi is considered by many Tunisians as one of the most rapacious of the clan, increasing his wealth in dramatic style in part by allegedly pressuring Tunisian partners of foreign owned conglomerates like Nestle SA to sell him their shares.
Mr. Materi also founded a bank, bought a 25% stake in Tunisia’s second-largest telecom operator, got elected to parliament and acquired a media group. But Mr. Materi has insisted that his wealth is due to his business acument, not to his ties to the Ben Ali family. A quote from part of his biography posted on his personal web site before the revolution that unseated Mr. Ben Ali reads: “One may envy his status as son-in-law of the president, but no-one can denigrate him by implying that he only owes his success to [Ben Ali].”