Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, have been living in Saudi Arabia since his ouster in January, which touched off a wave of protests across North Africa and the Middle East.
Earlier Monday, Ben Ali complained he had been tricked into ending his 23-year rule and released a statement saying he was "tired of being made a scapegoat."
"I was duped into leaving Tunis," Ben Ali said in a statement released earlier in the day.
Saudi authorities have not responded to an extradition request from Tunisia for Ben Ali and his wife and there seems little chance of them standing trial in Tunisia in person, the BBC reported.
CNN reported the courtroom was packed as Ben Ali's trial began Monday morning. The judge delayed a verdict on drug charges until June 30. The BBC said in addition to the 35-year prison term for theft and other charges, the Ben Alis were fined $66 million.
Ben Ali attorney Akram Azouri told the BBC the sentence was "a joke."
"Don't forget that the drug and the money were found three months after the president left his palace," Azouri, who was not allowed to participate in the court proceedings, said from Beirut.
Ben Ali and his wife had been accused of 93 counts of stealing cash, weapons, jewelry and drugs, which were found in the presidential palace. Ben Ali and his inner circle also are accused of murder and torture and he is under investigation for abuse of power and trafficking in archaeological artifacts as well. Ben Ali has denied the allegations.
The Tunisian revolt, touched off by a fruit vendor who set himself afire because authorities had seized his cart, left an estimated 300 dead and 700 injured, a U.N. human rights expert reported last month.