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Ben Ali's ill-gotten gains draw crowds of Tunisians
Visitors gather around a display of jewellery items that once belonged to the family of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at an auction in the Tunis suburb of Gammarth on December 23, 2012. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali kicked off viewing of thousands of luxury items once owned by the ousted leader and his family on the eve of a public auction, in a bid to raise millions of euros for government coffers. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID.

GAMMARTH (AFP).- Agents of rich Gulf collectors, lovers of luxury and those simply curious to see the ill-gotten gains of the Ben Ali clan were among those drawn to a sale of the deposed Tunisian despot's assets that began on Sunday.

"We're here out of curiosity, to see the size of the scam this country suffered from," said Mehdi, 25, visiting the exhibition with his uncle, a car enthusiast.

"It feels like voyeurism," he added, saying that he felt "uneasy in front of all this luxury that is insulting to ordinary Tunisians struggling to get by."

A bright red Ferrari owned by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's spoilt nephew Imed, and a brand new Porsche destined for his youngest child, were among the items on show in the pharaonic decor of the Cleopatra exhibition space amid tight security.

The former belongings of Ben Ali and 114 of his relatives are going under the hammer in the chic Tunisian resort of Gammarth, in an auction due to last one month and from which the cash-strapped government hopes to raise millions of euros.

Suits belonging to the toppled despot are expected to go for 3,000 euros each, while coats acquired by his wife Leila Trabelsi, who was notorious for her expensive tastes, could rack up as much as 4,000 euros.

The collection of 39 luxury cars, only half of which were on display, was of particular interest to an agent acting on behalf of a Saudi prince.

"We have made the (purchase) request three times since February, but we had to wait for this exhibition. Today we're ready," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Highlights from the car collection include a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 460, a Bentley Continental sports car, an armoured Cadillac and a Maybach 62. Limited edition Mercedes and BMWs also feature.

"No comment!" was all that one rich young couple had to say to reporters as they eyed up the Maybach, a present from Libya's Moamer Kadhafi, another north African dictator who amassed wealth before being ousted in last year's Arab Spring uprisings.

"Around 100 people attended the opening, pretty busy for a Sunday. It's a good crowd," said Affef Douss, in charge of organising the event for the finance ministry.

Banners proclaiming "Revolution, freedom and dignity" are displayed around the exhibition, a reminder of the strange provenance of the opulent items up for sale.

Corruption and nepotism were rife under the regime of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife after the first Arab Spring uprising swept the country.

Mehdi Ben Garbia, a Tunisian MP, said he had come "to get an idea about the way in which the taxpayers' money was squandered."

Like all members of the government, parliamentarians are barred from buying.

Most of the works of art, ornaments, furniture, and some of the carpets on offer will be sold to the highest bidder, with no item thought to be worth less than 5,000 euros.

Animal statues of solid gold, crystal horses and an 80-centimetre-high (32-inch) silver olive tree feature among the lots.

There is a constant hum of excitement in the last viewing room, where clothing and accessories formerly owned by the disgraced first lady are on display -- including luxury shoes and handbags worth many times the minimum monthly wage.

Of the 400 jewels and ornaments confiscated by the state, only around 20 are shown, among them a made-to-measure choker that once adorned the neck of Ben Ali's wife, sparkling with some 1,000 diamonds.

A doctor who lives in France discussed the jewellery with a diamond specialist, but his wife stepped away.

"My husband wants to buy, but I'm actually disgusted. These are fabulous jewels, but they tell a harrowing story."


© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse

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