A Tunisian court Wednesday sentenced ousted Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to life in prison for his role in the killing of protesters during last year's revolution.

The court in Kef sentenced the former leader in absentia because he is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, the Voice of America reported. The Saudi government has refused to hand over Ben Ali and his wife to Tunisian officials.

The court also sentenced Ben Ali's interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, to at least 12 years in prison over the killing of protesters during last year's unrest.

Of 23 senior officials on trial over the killing of protesters in the towns of Kasserine, Tala, Kairouan and Tajrouine, however, 14 were acquitted, including Ben Ali's presidential security chief Ali Seriati and Ahmed Friaa, who was appointed interior minister shortly before the president fled, Reuters reported .

Many of the security chiefs acquitted also face a litany of other charges that could yet see them punished, but the trial was seen as symbolic because it dealt with the deaths of protesters in central towns where the uprising began.

The acquittals sparked anger in the courtroom, where the families of the victims who have waited almost 18 months for justice erupted. Women were heard wailing and relatives of the victims vowed to avenge their deaths.

Wednesday's verdict in Tunisia came as its government blamed extremist groups for several days of rioting.

The violence earlier this week, which was the worst since Ben Ali's departure, was apparently triggered by an art exhibit in Tunis that spelled out the name of God with a string of insects, outraging conservative Muslims.

The rioting in the Tunisian capital left one person dead and dozens wounded, and sparked clashes across the country.