Friday, January 27, 2012


Is the Tunisian moneyman still in Canada? How did the authorities lose track of him? Are they incompetent?

Mystery follows fugitive Tunisian tycoon Trabelsi

Rumour has it Belhassen Trabelsi, the so-called "Godfather" of Tunisia, has left Montreal for Mexico, following in the footsteps of Moammar Gadhafi's son in search of a country with lax anti-corruption and extradition laws.

A newspaper in Tunisia reported two weeks ago that Trabelsi, whose fortune reportedly runs in the billions of dollars, first left Canada for Venezuela hoping for a warmer welcome, before settling on Mexico. There have been no sightings of him since.

But rumours may just be rumours — and observers in Montreal believe Trabelsi is still in Canada, a hot potato the federal government probably wishes it could pass on to another country, as the Immigration, Foreign Affairs and Justice departments struggle to figure out what to do with him next.

The brother-in-law of deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — and, according to a 2008 U.S. government cable released by WikiLeaks, among the most reviled of the former dictator's extended family — Trabelsi, 49, arrived in a private jet at Montreal's Trudeau airport with his wife and children on Jan. 20, 2011, flashing his permanent residency papers. (He has been a permanent resident of Canada since the 1990s.)

It was six days after Ben Ali himself fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. Trabelsi's residency was soon revoked, however, because he had not lived in Canada for at least two of the previous five years.

But Trabelsi, fleeing the revolution in Tunisia — and payback for the violence and corruption by which he allegedly amassed his great wealth — quickly sought to appeal that decision. To Canada's dismay, he also applied for refugee status.

The Immigration and Refugee Board is expected to render a decision on Trabelsi's case in the next few days. But it is not clear if he is in fact still in Montreal.

The Canada Border Services Agency won't provide any information about Trabelsi, citing his right to privacy. It won't even say whether it confiscated Trabelsi's passport upon his arrival.

Then again, the CBSA wouldn't necessarily know if Trabelsi left the country of his own accord — Canada doesn't have exit controls.

Haroun Boazzi, a spokesperson for the Association des droits de la personne au Maghreb, says earlier reports that Trabelsi had fled to Venezuela were false.

"I believe he is still in Canada," said Boazzi, who has been lobbying to have Trabelsi, and his assets, repatriated by force to Tunisia. Trabelsi controlled significant portions of the tourism, banking, aviation, real estate and media sectors.

"But he has a huge problem," Boazzi said. "He can't bring his money here."

In March 2011, the federal government passed new legislation to freeze the assets of "politically exposed" persons fleeing Tunisia and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.

The Freezing Assets of Corrupt Regimes Act makes it a crime to enter into any kind of financial transaction with Trabelsi, No. 8 on a list amended in December to include 123 people from Tunisia and 145 from Egypt.

Trabelsi's holdings in Canada are worth an estimated $10 million. Anyone found guilty of transacting with him can be fined $25,000 or sentenced to five years in jail.

Donald Kattan, one of Trabelsi's lawyers, is believed to be the first to be investigated under the new law. According to La Presse, Kattan received almost $1.4 million from Trabelsi in January 2011, and acted on his behalf to pay for hotel rooms and rent, as well as school fees for his daughters — $28,000 was refunded when his daughters were asked to leave the school last June.

The RCMP's Eric Gasse confirmed Thursday the investigation into Kattan's dealings with Trabelsi is continuing. Kattan wouldn't comment.

Last September, Trabelsi was found guilty in absentia of corruption, unlawful trade in precious metals and unlawful transfer of currency and was sentenced to 15 years by a Tunisian court.

Last December he was found guilty of possession of archeological pieces, and sentenced to another 21 months.

Trabelsi's convictions buttress Tunisia's request to extradite him — if in fact one was made. According to media reports the Tunisian embassy made a first request in January 2011, after Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest, and new Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki repeated his request two weeks ago.

"It's time our Western friends reconsider their way of seeing our countries, and that they treat us as equals and accept to send us our criminals and our money," he told a reporter in Tunis.

But the Foreign Affairs Department will neither confirm nor deny it has received such a request. On Thursday spokesperson Aliya Mawani said via email that "Canada continues to work with the new Tunisian government to ensure that corrupt foreign leaders are held accountable for their actions, in keeping with the principle of the rule of law."

Barring Trabelsi's extradition, the hot potato remains with the Immigration Department, and like Leon Mugesera, who was deported to Rwanda Tuesday after 16 years in Canada, Trabelsi could be here a long time.

While he is appealing the decision to revoke his permanent residency, he remains a permanent resident, said immigration lawyer Stephane Handfield, and as such is free to come and go as he pleases.

Only after a ruling has been made on his appeal will Trabelsi's claim for refugee status be heard, Handfield said. Given his convictions in Tunisia, his claim would surely be denied.

"Mr. Trabelsi might have good motives to say his life is in danger if he is returned to Tunisia but it will be harder to convince them he didn't engage in serious criminality."

Trabelsi could then appeal to the Federal Court. If the negative decision is upheld, the Immigration Department would then assess the risk of him being tortured or killed upon his removal — a process which in the case of Mugesera took six years.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney would not comment on the case. Instead, spokeswoman Candice Malcolm reiterated his stance.

"Minister Kenney has been clear that improvements to our immigration system are necessary and forthcoming. Our government will ensure that Canada is not the dumping ground for the world's foreign criminals, and that these criminals can no longer hide in Canada among hardworking and law-abiding Canadians."

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