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Canada loses former Tunisian leader's brother-in-law accused of fraud

Wealthy businessman is wanted in Tunisia on charges of fraud, embezzlement and laundering of criminal proceeds
Belhassen Trabelsi, brother of Ben Ali's wife, is accused of amassing fortune through connections (AFP)

By Clement Sabourin

Canadian authorities were unable to locate the brother-in-law of deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali when it came time to deport him last month, AFP learned from a judicial source on Thursday.

Belhassen Trabelsi and his family flew in a private jet to Montreal in January 2011, after a mass uprising swept Tunisia and touched off uprisings in many countries across the region.

He requested asylum last year, but his application was denied. 

Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials were scheduled to meet with Trabelsi on 24 May in preparation for his deportation to Tunisia a week later.

But he "disappeared and even his lawyers say he cannot be found," the immigration authorities said in federal court documents obtained by AFP and dated 26 May.

"It appears he has disappeared in the wilderness," Borhene El Kamel, second in charge at the Tunisian embassy in Ottawa, told AFP.

"I hope that the Canadians will locate him as soon as possible and return him to Tunisia to face justice," he said.

Prior to his disappearance, the 53-year-old businessman had been living in a plush apartment in Montreal.

The Tunisian embassy does not know if he had been monitored by Canadian authorities, said Kamel, noting that Tunisia "does not have the means to keep an eye on him outside its borders". 

"We don't know" if a warrant has been issued for Trabelsi's arrest, he added.

Canadian authorities declined to specifically comment on Trabelsi's case, citing privacy laws.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for the Public Safety minister, said: "The CBSA is very vigilant and works to locate those who do not meet their obligations for removal."

Fraud, embezzlement and trafficking 

After the fall of the Ben Ali government, authorities in Tunis asked Ottawa to detain Trabelsi, accusing him of being the Ben Ali clan's bag man who was tasked with distributing illicitly gained funds. 

Although Trabelsi, his wife and four children had previously been granted permanent residency in Canada, they lost their status because they had not spent an obligatory minimum amount of time in the country.

The tribunal that rejected his Canadian refugee claim cited a lengthy list of accusations brought by the authorities, including fraud against the Tunisian government, embezzlement and laundering criminal proceeds.

Trabelsi denied the allegations, saying he "amassed his fortune through work and his skills as an entrepreneur".


Trabelsi 5 Fishes yacht was seized in Tunis and put on sale for $8m by authorities (AFP)
Although the evidence against him was mostly circumstantial, the board found it compelling enough to deny his refugee claim.

A leaked June 2008 US diplomatic cable concluded that Trabelsi was "the most notorious [Ben Ali] family member and is rumoured to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup to property expropriation and extortion of bribes".

Trabelsi's sister Leila has been married to Ben Ali since 1994.

The diplomatic cable noted that his holdings include an airline, hotels, a radio station, car assembly plants, and more.

At his Canadian refugee hearing, Trabelsi was also accused of "possession and trafficking of archaeological treasures," notably ancient statuettes.

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