The family of Tunisia's ousted president has $10-million to $20-million in Canada, sources say.
However, efforts to freeze the money while police investigate allegations that it was looted have hit a Catch-22 snag - the RCMP says it can't act until it gets more evidence from Tunisia, but the North African nation needs Canada's help to gather that information.
In an interview, a senior RCMP commander said the force doesn't have enough proof under strict Canadian laws on proceeds of crime to persuade a judge to order the blocking of assets of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's clan.
"We have not yet received the evidence," said Bob Paulson, the RCMP Deputy Commissioner in charge of federal and international policing.
"To the extent that the Tunisians produce evidence of a substantive offence that links to the money, we can make restraints and forfeiture through the Criminal Code."
Tunisia, however, needs Canadian judicial assistance and forensic expertise to dig into the murky world of money-laundering and plundered assets, Ambassador Mouldi Sakri said.
"We need Canada's help to find out the source of the money," Mr. Sakri said. "They have the means to do it here."
He made a formal request for assistance to Ottawa, he said, acknowledging his government has yet to come up with tangible proof that Tunisian assets in Canada have an illicit source.
"We are in the process of gathering the evidence little by little," he said. "We are trying to do the maximum that we can, but it's not at all easy."
The government hasn't revealed how much money could be frozen by Canada but sources say the total ranges between $10-million and $20-million.
The deadlock means that Belhassen Trabelsi, the former president's brother-in-law, who flew to Montreal with his family aboard a private jet on Jan. 20, isn't affected by sanctions in Canada, even though he no longer can access his European assets. The billionaire has requested refugee status.
Five days after Mr. Ben Ali's Jan. 14 ouster, Switzerland froze the assets of more than 40 people in his entourage, citing an article in the Swiss constitution allowing the government to issue any orders to "safeguard the interests of the country." Two weeks later, the European Union also agreed to lock down the assets of Mr. Ben Ali and 47 others.
The RCMP and other agencies began investigating the money trail from the start, working in part with names provided by Tunisia.
But, without strong indications that the money has illicit origins, the force can't proceed beyond information-gathering, Deputy Commissioner Paulson said.
Daniel Thelesklaf, a former head of the Swiss federal police's financial intelligence unit, urged Canada to act faster.
"Maybe the rules have to be changed," said Mr. Thelesklaf, who is an executive at the Basel Institute on Governance. He noted that Switzerland locked accounts linked to Hosni Mubarak within 30 minutes of the Egyptian president's resignation.
"It's an emergency call, a preventative measure just to be sure that the assets won't be stashed away where you don't find them. This is also a signal to the victim country: You have sufficient time to start a criminal investigation."
A Swiss law coming into force earlier this month enables officials to seize suspicious assets from "politically exposed persons" - foreign leaders and their relatives - even without a request from the foreign country, which might not have the resources to pursue an investigation.
While the Trabelsi clan is alleged to have amassed billions through its grip on most of the Tunisian economy, the amounts identified so far appear to be relatively small, reflecting the regime's sudden collapse.
The Swiss Foreign Ministry has confirmed its government froze tens of millions of dollars.
Similarly, a prosecutor in Belgium said authorities there blocked sums that were "not negligible, but we are not talking about hundreds of millions of euros."
Mr. Theleskaf said Canada can no longer afford the luxury of thinking it is not a haven for former ruling clans on the run, seeking to hide their wealth.
"The time is gone where, like in a James Bond movie, you have the usual suspects and it's just Switzerland and a few Caribbean islands where people hide their money. Every country is affected today."