The federal government is seeking the expulsion from Canada of the billionaire brother-in-law of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But it could be years before Belhassen Trabelsi is forced to leave the country, if he can be made to leave at all.
Sources report that the Canadian government revoked Mr. Trabelsi's status as a permanent resident, granted to legal immigrants after they arrive in Canada. Officials had been investigating whether he had forfeited that status by not living in Canada for at least two of the past five years.
Mr. Trabelsi returned to Canada after Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled Tunisia in the wake of mass demonstrations that toppled the former dictator's regime. Mr. Trabelsi is believed to be staying in a Montreal-area hotel. Mr. Ben Ali is thought to be in Saudi Arabia.
It is no easy thing to revoke residency status once it has been obtained. "If he has the resources and the determination, he can easily stay here for ten years, maybe more," said Leo Adler, a law professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School. He noted that some individuals have successfully fought deportation for more than 20 years.
Mr. Trabelsi can appeal the ruling, which typically takes several months to resolve. If his appeal fails, he could well claim refugee status, saying he would face persecution if he were made to return to his native Tunisia. It would be a strong claim, since the lavish lifestyle of Mr. Ben Ali's family fueled the mass protests that toppled the regime.
A claimant can be excluded from the refugee determination system because of criminal activity - Mr. Trabelsi is accused of having amassed his wealth through corruption - but that too can be appealed.
Once all appeals are exhausted, Mr. Trabelsi would still qualify for a pre-removal risk assessment, which would determine what might occur if he were to return to Tunisia. He could also file an appeal to remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, and if that failed, seek leave for judicial review at the federal court.
Nonetheless, the Conservative government is taking pains to ensure that Canadians understand it is doing everything within the federal power to remove Mr. Trabelsi.
"Canada will use all tools at its disposal to co-operate with the international community in dealing with members of the former regime," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday in Rabat, Morocco, where he was on an official visit.
"They are not welcome - I'll be very clear - we do not welcome them in our country."
The Prime Minister also said Canada will work with its international allies in an effort to freeze the former regime's assets.
Mr. Harper affirmed his support for the street protests that toppled the Tunisian government.
"Canada supports the transition in Tunisia," Mr. Harper said. "We support the democratic development that is taking place there and obviously want to see that proceed positively."
As for uprisings in Egypt, he said: "We want to see democratic development in that country as well and we're very supportive of that. At the same time, we want to see that happen in a way that is peaceful and non-violent."
In a separate development that could bolster the case for Mr. Trabelsi's removal, a Tunisian embassy official in Ottawa stated Thursday that the new government had formally transferred a request for his arrest, along with the official Tunisian arrest warrant, to the Canadian government.
However, there is no extradition treaty between Tunisia and Canada, though both countries are signatories of a United Nations convention on corruption that could allow extradition.
Montreal has a large Tunisian-Canadian community, which is appalled that family members of the disgraced former dictator are seeking refuge there. So is the Conservative government, which faces potential embarrassment over the affair.
Ottawa is worried that growing public frustration with people who abuse Canada's immigration and refugee system could lead to calls for a more closed-door policy.
That a powerful family member of an undemocratic regime had obtained what amounted to an insurance policy by securing Canadian residency status won't bolster confidence in the Canadian system.
Years of fruitless and expensive efforts to force Mr. Trabelsi's removal will hardly serve as an advertisement for the effectives of Canadian policies, either.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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