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Family members of deposed Tunisian leader believed to be in Montreal

Mohamed Sakher El Materi owns, but has not yet moved into, a two-storey mansion in Montreal's Westmount area.

John Morstad for The Globe and Mail/john morstad The Globe and Mail

Relatives of toppled Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are reported to have fled their nation's turmoil for Montreal, sparking denunciations by Tunisian expatriates who accuse them of plundering their homeland's wealth.

Five to 10 extended members of Tunisia's deposed first family flew by private jet to Montreal last week, Radio-Canada reported on Sunday. Their exact whereabouts are not known.

Canada may be constrained in what it can do about the presence of relatives of the former Tunisian strongman who built a reputation for his iron-fisted rule over his North African country. Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said some members of the ex-president's family already had permanent resident status and therefore had the legal right to be in Canada.

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Those without residency would require visitors' visas, which would be difficult to obtain, he told the broadcaster.

"We obviously don't want to let people who might be guilty of a serious crime to come to Canada," he said in Ottawa.

Ottawa's assurances failed to quell concerns by members of the Tunisian community in Montreal that Canada might be harbouring members of a regime widely condemned for its extravagance, human-rights abuses and looting of the nation.

"We are scandalized that these people could be here. I don't think it reflects Canadian values of justice and human rights," said Sonia Djelidi, who speaks for a solidarity group of Tunisian Montrealers monitoring the situation in Tunisia.

"If we open the door to this family it means we could open the door to other criminals."

She called on members of the family to be expelled to face justice in Tunisia. Community members are also consulting lawyers about the possibility of freezing any possible assets belonging to the former first family in Canada.

The former president's son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, is said to have purchased a $2.55-million mansion in the upper reaches of the wealthy municipality of Westmount in 2008. It's not clear whether he still owns it.

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Tunisia's ousted first family was known in the country for its ruthlessness and opulent wealth, amassed through its control of virtually every facet of the Tunisian economy.

According to reports, one of the former president's brothers-in-law was among those seeking refuge in Montreal. The ex-president wife, Leila Trabelsi, has several brothers and they are known to have accumulated conspicuous wealth.

The federal government says it is tracking the presence of the former Tunisian first family in Canada. Ottawa insists it would only issue visas to applicants who could prove they would leave Canada once their visas expired.

"Given that members of the regime cannot return to Tunisia, that would be a challenge," the Immigration department said in a statement.

Canada can also bar the way to anyone who has a criminal record or is deemed to pose a security risk.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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