The Tunisian job: How president's wife 'fled with $60m in gold bullion'

Anger is growing on the streets as astonishing greed of former ruling dynasty is exposed, reports Kim Sengupta in Tunis

The final act of the kleptocracy by the Ben Ali family was to steal one and a half tonnes of gold, with the president's wife personally collecting the bullion from an initially reluctant but eventually browbeaten president of the country's central bank.

Within hours the allegations – denied by the central bank – had been turned into slogans on the streets of Tunis in another demonstration, as protesters vented their fury at the former first family. "Hang them all, but let's get our gold back first," shouted a group marching along Avenue Bourguiba.

This may not be easy. Whereas Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is now a guest of Saudi Arabia, supposedly in the same neighbourhood of Jeddah which once hosted another fallen African strongman, Idi Amin, the whereabouts of his spouse, Leila Trabelsi, is unclear. Some Tunisians say that Dubai, where she would go on shopping expeditions, is the destination, others say it is one of the central Asian republics.

The account of 53-year-old Ms Trabelsi's great bank robbery, which netted an estimated £37.5m ($60m), came from the French secret service after the Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, announced in Paris that movement of money from the former colony was under surveillance.

Ms Trabelsi, according to French security officials, went to the Bank of Tunisia on Friday with a small group of her staff and demanded that the gold be handed over to her office for safekeeping. When the bank president refused, a telephone call was said to have come from the president ordering that the handover should take place.

A few hours later the couple flew out of the country, with Mr Ben Ali deciding against delivering a valedictory speech. The jet initially headed for France, but, it is claimed, was diverted to Saudi Arabia after President Nicolas Sarkozy refused permission to land.



The account was yesterday denied by the central bank, which said that the former first leader had never set foot in the bank. The official in charge of payments "had never received verbal or written orders to take out gold or currency," the bank spokesman Zied Mouhli told the BBC. "The gold reserves have not moved for years."

Meanwhile, two of the former president's daughters arrived in Disneyland, near Paris, to seek asylum. Nesrine, who, with her husband, Sakhr, had kept a pet tiger, moved with her sister Halima into a series of suites at the Castle Club hotel with a retinue of servants and bodyguards. According to reports they left after being told by the French government that their presence was not welcome.

One of the first acts yesterday of Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Prime Minister, who is charged with forming a coalition government, was to declare that anyone displaying ostentatious wealth would face investigation.

A marked feature of the protests which swept the president from power after 23 years of autocratic rule was the depth of hatred displayed against the relations of Ben Ali and his wife who, in their eyes, had stolen billions from the country. Theirs were the first homes and businesses to be ransacked, and those who failed to get away paid a lethal price.

The most prominent of these victims had been Imed Trabelsi, the ex-first lady's nephew, who was hunted down and hacked to death. A number of other, lesser members of the clan were placed under arrest.

US diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks charted the venality of the Ben Alis and their entourage, with chapter headings like, "All in the Family", "Mob Rule" and "The Sky's The Limit" describing how "Imed and Moaz Trabelsi [cousins] are reported to have stolen the yacht of a French businessman, Bruno Roger, chairman of Lazard Paris [a bank]". They went on to describe how "Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family – the Trabelsis – provoke the greatest ire".

Diplomats recorded how Leila Trabelsi's brother, Belhassen, was "rumoured to have been involved in a wide range of corrupt schemes with holdings involving an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia's two private radio stations, car assembly plants, a Ford distribution and a real estate development company."

Copycat immolations spread across region

Five people have set themselves on fire in Egypt and Algeria in the past week, apparently inspired by a young Tunisian whose drastic protest against economic hardship sparked the month of rioting which toppled president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Authoritarian regimes in neighbouring Arab countries have kept a nervous eye on events on Tunisia, fearing a domino effect as rising food prices, poverty and corruption stoke discontent.

In Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30 years, a 48-year-old restaurateur doused himself in fuel and set himself ablaze yesterday near Cairo's parliament building in protest at the high price of bread. Police and passing motorists quickly doused the flames, and health officials said they expect Abdou Abdel Moneim to live.

An Algerian man who set himself on fire in village near the Tunisian border last week is in a more serious condition. Mohsen Bouterfif was unhappy at the lack of housing, and Reuters news agency reported that about 100 people took to the streets in protest after the attempted suicide. Algerian newspapers have reported three other recent cases of self-immolation in provincial towns.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant

£12024: Randstad Education Leeds: Teaching Assistant September 2014 start - te...

Physics Teacher

£130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn