AFP - A Tunisian ex-diplomat went on trial in eastern France on Monday, accused of torturing the wife of an opposition member in the 1990s when he was a police chief in Tunisia.
Khaled Ben Said, who served as Tunisian vice-consul in the French city of Strasbourg from 2000 to 2001, faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty of torture.
Targeted by an international arrest warrant, 46-year-old Ben Said stands accused by Zoulaikha Gharbi of leading a group of officers who interrogated and tortured her in a police station in the Tunisian town of Jendouba in 1996.
Gharbi claims she was subjected to torture during 24 hours for information about her husband Mouldi Gharbi, an opponent of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who holds refugee status in France.
The 44-year-old woman alleges that her torturers partially undressed her, hung her from a metal bar, insulted, scratched and pinched her breasts.
Ben Said was being tried under French laws on universal jurisdiction that allow courts to prosecute foreigners for crimes committed anywhere in the world.
Tunisian officials have rejected the charges against Ben Said as "totally unfounded," and questioned the French court's competence to try the case.
The Tunisian government issued a statement describing the case as "sheer fabrication and a propaganda ploy by fundamentalists" bent on discrediting Ben Ali's regime.
"Torture and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment are strictly forbidden under Tunisian law," said the statement issued in Tunis.
Gharbi, 44, who now also lives in France, lodged the suit in 2001.
A Tunisian journalist and a political expert took the stand in the eastern city of Strasbourg on behalf of the plaintiff and described torture as a regular occurence in the north African country.
"Violence is one of the central tenets of the Tunisian regime," said Vincent Geisser, a research fellow for the CNRS institute, who said it was a "state-sponsored practice."
"Torture is institutionalised" in Tunisia, said journalist Sihem Bensedrine. Once confined to special interior ministry rooms, torture is nowadays "practiced everywhere, even in the smallest police station," he said.
It is the second time a legal case is opened in France under the provisions of universal jurisdiction, following the trial for torture of a Mauritanian military officer in 2005.
Written into the UN convention against torture, the principle has been making inroads into international law ever since the detention of Chilean former dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues is a civil plaintiff in the case, in which the Tunisian president and ambassador to France have both been called to testify.
The verdict could be handed down later Monday.