Fictitious Tunisair jobs: how Ben Ali’s niece filled her pockets

Nepotism, favouritism and abuse of social assets characterize the case of the fictitious Tunisair jobs, which had its third hearing last week before the specialized transitional justice chamber in Tunis. This case involves 15 people, including a famous niece of former President Ben Ali, Saloua Mlika, who is tried in absentia.

Fictitious Tunisair jobs: how Ben Ali’s niece filled her pocketsAccused of having held a fictitious job at Tunisair Paris, Saloua Milka, a niece of former President Ben Ali, would have received the equivalent of 85 million euros in free plane tickets, according to the calculations of the Truth and Dignity Commission.
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The now famous “Saloua Mlika case” is one of the 1,605 corruption cases examined by the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) during its mandate. This case shows the extent of the privileges enjoyed by the Ben Ali clan, and confirms that the clan considered the resources of the state as booty to be divided among relatives and friends.

Fifteen defendants were initially cited in this case of fictitious jobs at public airline Tunisair, including the late former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; former CEOs of Tunisair Rafaâ Dekhil, Nabil Chettaoui, Abdelmlek Laarif and Youssef Neji; representatives of Tunisair in France Mohamed Habib Ben Slama, Ali Miâoui, Bechir Ben Sassi and Abdelaziz Jebali; the president’s sister Hayet Ben Ali; his niece Saloua Mlika and her husband Mohamed Laabidi.

The facts date back to October 1996, when Mlika, the head of state’s niece and sister of environment minister at the time Mehdi Mlika, was hired as an administrative agent at Tunisair without having to pass any competitive test. Four months later, she was seconded to the Tunisair office in Paris. This was a much coveted position in which she enjoyed numerous benefits: an enviable salary of 4,000 euros per month at the end of the 1990s; bonuses; and the right to free business class air tickets for her, her husband and children.

The niece pockets over a million

The president’s niece did not have the minimum four years’ length of service required a foreign posting. That privilege lasted 14 years instead of the usual five, and the investigation calculated that she pocketed more than a million Tunisian dinars (about 365.000 euros) in all.

Three former heads of Tunisair in Paris appeared before the court on February 8: Jebali, Ben Slama, and Ben Sassi. They were heard by the president of the Tunis specialized transitional justice chamber, Ridha Yacoub. All three rejected the charges brought against them by the IVD, including “using a public official and position to achieve an undue advantage for him or for the benefit of a third person”, according to Article 96 of the Penal Code. That crime is punishable by up to ten years in jail under Tunisian law.

The first to be called to the stand was Jebali, Tunisair’s representative in Paris from 1993 to 1998. It was during his mandate that Mlika was appointed in France. “She served three to four months, then became pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy, according to her health reports. She then requested a long-term sick leave. After that, I returned to Tunis at the end of my mission in Paris,” said the former senior executive, who is now retired.

Senior executives under political influence

Ben Slama was head of Tunisair’s office in Paris from 2002 to 2008. He said that as soon as he took office he called the director of human resources in Tunis to denounce the Mlika case. The latter advised him to write a “movement report”, a document reporting an unjustified absence of an agent. “I noted in this report the unjustified absence of Saloua Mlika, whose monthly salary at that time amounted to 3,600 euros. For three months, I did not pay her salary,” said Ben Slama. But in this standoff with the first head of Tunisair in Paris, Mlika eventually won and her benefits continued until the end of her mission.

As the case was one of 300 investigated by the post-revolution National Commission of Investigation into Corruption and transferred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in October 2011, Mlika was prosecuted in absentia by the Tunisian justice system and sentenced in 2012 to six years in prison.

Ben Sassi succeeded Ben Slama from 2008 to 2010. He told the specialized chamber that he made the same attempts as his predecessor, refusing to pay the president’s niece and asking company CEO Nabil Chattaoui for authorization to definitively suspend Mlika’s salary. But after consulting with the presidential office and particularly the president’s economic advisor (Mongi Safra at the time), the CEO ordered him to continue paying the salary, Ben Sassi said. “Her husband came to threaten and intimidate me in my office when I stopped paying his wife’s salary,” Ben Sassi told the court.

Another false position in Switzerland

In 2010, Ben Sassi was transferred to Switzerland where he found among his agents a certain Bessma Mlika [Saloua Mlika’s sister] in a fictitious post receiving 6,000 Swiss francs per month. 

Today a loss-making public airline, Tunisair was making profits of more than 70 million Tunisian dinars a year at the end of the 1980s. The Parisian office was one of the company’s flagships. In a 2014 World Bank study on corruption during the former regime entitled “All in the Family, State Capture in Tunisia”, the authors noted: “The corruption of the Ben Ali family was notorious and was a source of obvious frustration for the Tunisian population, as evidenced by the targeted and systematic looting of the clan’s properties after the uprising of 2011”.

The Mlika case is due to resume on May 3.