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TUNIS -- A Tunisian court sentenced once all-powerful Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to life on Wednesday for his role in the deaths of protesters during last year's uprising which toppled him and inspired the Arab Spring revolutions.
Ben Ali's escape to Saudi Arabia on January 14 last year saved the 75-year-old the humiliation of standing in the dock to answer charges that initially covered possession of drugs and weapons, and were later extended to murder and torture.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Ben Ali over the killing of 22 people while trying to douse the revolt in the two central cities of Thala and Kasserine.
The eventual sentence after the six-month trial was merely symbolic for a man who appeared in official portraits with a benevolent smile and jet black hair, and won a fifth term two years before his ouster with around 90 percent of the votes.
A career soldier, Ben Ali took power on November 7, 1987 when he toppled Habib Bourguiba, the father of Tunisian independence who was by then reported to be senile at the age of 84.
Tunisians, including Islamists, had hailed his bloodless, non-violent takeover from the man who died in 2000.
He went on to make Tunisia a moderate voice in the Arab world while Western governments viewed him as an effective bulwark against Islamist extremism despite criticism of his slow move toward autocratic rule.
He began his rule encouragingly, scrapping the title of "president for life" created by Bourguiba and limiting the number of presidential terms to three.
He launched a "solidarity" policy, creating a special fund for the underprivileged and a social security system, while pursuing the promotion of education and women's rights.
But he consolidated his rule by muzzling the opposition, keeping strong control of the media and armed forces and gradually extending the number of terms he was allowed to serve under the constitution.
Ben Ali was born into a modest family in the east-central town of Hammam-Sousse on September 3, 1936 when Tunisia was still a French protectorate.
He studied at military academies in both France and the United States and was appointed minister for national security in 1985, moving up to the interior ministry the following year and the post of prime minister in 1987.
Ben Ali promised a move towards democracy when he became president, organizing the country's first multi-candidate presidential election in 1999 -- and winning it with an official 99.44 percent of the vote.
In May 2002 he held a referendum to change the constitution so he could serve a fourth term; a second such change allowed for an unlimited number of mandates.
He was fond of telling foreign leaders that Tunisia, a major mass-market tourist destination for Europeans, "does not have any lessons to receive" about human rights.
But rights groups regularly condemned his government, which they said held hundreds of political prisoners, although he denied this.
The revolt that toppled him was triggered in December 2010 by the self-immolation of a young man in the destitute center of the country.
The snowballing uprising first focused on joblessness but took on a political dimension, fuelled by anger after a crackdown that left scores dead.
Ben Ali made several attempts at conciliation including the creation of 300,000 new jobs, the sacking of his interior minister, the release of detained demonstrators and a pledge to not stand for re-election in 2014.
But the mood was unforgiving and he eventually fled with his wife Leila Trabelsi, his downfall igniting revolts across the Arab world.
Prosecutors compiled around 90 cases against the corruption-accused strongman and his entourage, whose assets have been frozen or seized in Europe.
The allegations range from drugs and weapons trafficking to murder and torture.
He has six children, three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by Trabelsi.
A relative said in February that he had suffered a stroke in Saudi Arabia, which has not responded to Tunisia's requests for his extradition.