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

Tuesday 18 January 2011 01:00 GMT

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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.

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