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(Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)
(Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)

Ousted Tunisian leader's brother-in-law in Montreal Add to ...

A billionaire patriarch known for leading the business side of the clan that ran Tunisia for decades has landed in Montreal, The Globe and Mail has learned.

It was Belhassen Trabelsi who flew into Montreal last week aboard a private plane with his wife, children and a nanny, government sources have confirmed. Federal officials privately acknowledge they may have little power to expel him any time soon.

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Mr. Trabelsi's business operation grew out of the dictatorship of his brother-in-law, ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The eldest brother of Mr. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, the businessman and his younger relatives controlled banking, communications, transport and many other major Tunisian industries while living lavishly. They have been accused of siphoning billions in assets into European and other countries.

"President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" is enough to indicate which family you mean," Robert Godec, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, wrote in a leaked cable sent to Washington, June 23, 2008.

"The Trabelsis strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumoured to have been involved in a wide range of corrupt schemes."

Mr. Trabelsi's return to Canada - he became a landed immigrant in the 1990s and has permanent resident status - is becoming a headache for the Conservative government. Ottawa now expects questions from the current Tunisian government and angry calls for his expulsion from the expatriate community in Montreal.

Permanent residents can lose their right to stay in Canada if they don't use it: Their status is not valid if they have not spent two of the past five years in the country. Immigration officials are now investigating whether Mr. Trabelsi has lived in Canada enough to maintain his right to that status, but he probably cannot be forced out immediately. He's already in Montreal, so if his residency is revoked, he can claim refugee status - he is clearly not welcome in Tunisia - and use legal procedures to stay in Canada for years.

Mr. Ben Ali's nephew, Imed Trabelsi, also has Canadian resident status and was reportedly in negotiations to buy a Montreal mansion in 2009 - a report the current property owner emphatically denies.

Imed Trabelsi was reportedly under police questioning in Tunis late last week. Known as a playboy and jet-setter, he was perhaps most notorious for allegations that he ordered the 2006 theft of a yacht belonging to a French investment banker. A French judge ruled a trial could be held in Tunisia. The outcome of that case is unknown.

Mr. Ben Ali's son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, has a child who is Canadian by birth, and property records show he holds the deed on a $2.5-million house in Westmount, Montreal's rich hillside enclave. (A lawyer has claimed the house was sold, saying records are out of date.)

The Canadian government says the family is not welcome and would be refused entry as visitors because they cannot return to their country. But if any family members, including the former president, arrive in Canada they could claim refugee status and make it difficult to expel them.

If Mr. Ben Ali does arrive, that could put Canada in the position of harbouring a dictator while he's pursued for siphoning money out of his country. Government officials said that if Tunisia asks Canada to freeze assets belonging to Mr. Ben Ali while they conduct an embezzlement investigation, Canada will consider issuing the freeze. But Tunisia has not yet asked.

Belhassen Trabelsi controlled or owned a Tunisian bank, an airline, hotels, a radio station, a car assembly plant and distribution system, along with a real estate development company and most of the country's concrete sales.

In his 2008 cable, Mr. Godec, the U.S. ambassador, outlined a series of allegations against Mr. Trabelsi, including extortion and land seizures and physical intimidation.

Tunisians have long disdained the Trabelsi family's lavish lifestyle and they released their ire on Belhassen Trabelsi's mansion after he fled earlier this month. Looters stole several luxury vehicles, artwork, even light fixtures. The family pool was filled with photo albums and artwork, and then drained. Rioters then burned the rest of the family's belongings.

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