TUNIS - Tunisia's ex-strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been sentenced in absentia to life in prison for complicity in the murders of 43 protesters in the 2011 revolution that toppled him, a judge said on Thursday.
Hedi Ayari of the Tunis military court said Ben Ali was judged with around 40 of his former officials, including General Ali Seriati, ex-head of presidential security, who was given a 20-year prison term.
Former interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem was sentenced to 15 years, while the case against Ahmed Friaa, another former interior minister, was dismissed.
In total, 21 of those charged were acquitted, and Ben Ali was the only defendant to receive a life sentence, a court official said.
The other sentences ran between five and 20 years.
Families of the victims reacted angrily, saying the sentences for Seriati and Kacem were too lenient and criticising the dismissal of the case against Friaa.
"All those convicted should have got life in prison," came shouts from a handful of relatives who made it to the sentencing hearing, which was only announced earlier in the day.
"Our children are not insects so that some of those convicted should only be condemned to five years in prison," said Saida Sifi, whose 19-year-old son was one of those killed.
"We will have revenge. We won't stand silent with our arms crossed."
After the hearing, Lamia Farhani, president of the Association of the Families of Martyrs, rushed at the sister of one of the defendants, an officer whose innocence she had proclaimed.
"There is no law; there is no justice," Farhani shouted.
The defendants were accused in connection with the 43 deaths and the wounding of 97 other people.
In all, more than 300 people died in the popular uprising that forced Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia in January 2011.
The ousted president had already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison in three separate trials, including for embezzlement, illegal possession of weapons and narcotics, housing fraud and abuse of power.
The event that sent waves rippling throughout the Arab world occurred in December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian who could find no other job than selling fruit, set fire to himself in frustration after harassment by the authorities.
His death the following month set off revolts throughout the small North African country, which were soon picked up in Egypt and elsewhere.
Since Ben Ali's departure, Tunisia has held elections, which brought the Islamist Ennahda party to power in December 2011.