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

Supporters of Tunisian uprising target Montreal-based billionaire Add to ...

After two weeks warning Canada that ousted members of Tunisia's ruling clan would head this way, Montreal supporters of the Tunisian uprising are now pursuing the one fugitive billionaire they know has landed.

Belhassen Trabelsi, whose family ties to the former Tunisian dictator allowed him to gain untold wealth, is now the prime Montreal target for everyone from street protesters who want him arrested to lawyers planning court action to freeze his family's bank accounts. Mr. Trabelsi has permanent resident status in Canada and arrived on a private jet last week.

Tunisian community leaders are dismayed the federal government has remained quiet while other countries like France have aggressively put a hold on family finances and vocally pursued investigations.

"People don't understand how France and Italy, direct accomplices of the old regime, have taken positions while Canada sticks to one line saying the family is not welcome," said Kamel Balti, a Montreal lawyer of Tunisian origin.

As news of Mr. Trabelsi's Canadian exile spread Wednesday, Tunisia's transitional government issued an international warrant for his arrest, accusing him of theft and gun running. The government was seeking Interpol's assistance in finding Mr. Trabelsi and several other fugitives, including ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leïla Trabelsi, Mr. Trabelsi's sister.

Mr. Trabelsi wasn't too far underground. Once his name was out, activists scrambled Wednesday night to organize a protest at the posh hotel just west of Montreal where he was believed to be staying with his wife, children and nanny.

Tunisia also asked Canada to freeze the assets of the entire extended family, sources said. Canadian officials refused to confirm the request and shuffled questions between Justice and Foreign Affairs. Government officials had previously said they would consider seeking a freeze if Tunisia asked.

Canada has no formal extradition treaty with Tunisia, but the two countries are part of a United Nations convention on corruption that could allow extradition.

Riots forced Mr. Ben Ali to flee Tunisia on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power. He and his extended clan are accused of abusing their power to acquire immense wealth. In Canada, the family is known to own at least one home, worth $2.5-million. French prosecutors are investigating assets in that country ranging from thoroughbred horses to lavish Paris apartments.

Now that Mr. Trabelsi is in Canada, the federal government should try to keep him here until Tunisian authorities are in position to put him on trial, said Haroun Bouazzi, the head of a Tunisian-Canadian community group in Montreal.

"He has his own plane, he can fly away when he wants. We don't want them flying away to some place that is not a country ruled by law, like Canada," Mr. Bouazzi said.

"So far Canada has been reacting, reacting, reacting, they aren't doing anything."

As Mr. Trabelsi's identity and location were confirmed Wednesday, Montreal lawyers were able to narrow the case they were building against the ruling family to one man.

"The extended family implicated in these crimes number in the hundreds, so to have one name is an immense help for the case in Canada," said Mr. Balti, the lawyer who is preparing a detailed dossier on Mr. Trabelsi's alleged crimes. He hopes his research will be used by the government to freeze the family's assets.

Mr. Balti described how Mr. Trabelsi, now in his late 40s, started out as an insurance salesman making a few hundred dollars a week until 1992. That year, his sister married the Tunisian president. Within a decade, he was on top of a family business empire, described by Western diplomats as "mafia-like," that included luxury hotels, an airline and control over two private banks that were used, along with government coffers, to finance more business ventures.

His first big play in the early 1990s was building a hotel which he sold for $70-million allegedly without paying a cent toward construction, Mr. Balti said. More recently, the government airline has been paying for maintenance and administration on Mr. Trabelsi's private airline, Mr. Balti said.

"This man made a few hundred dollars a week working for an insurance company and 10 years later he sat on an immense fortune," Mr. Balti said. "It's unimaginable how the instruments of the state were put to their use. Nobody dared refuse him anything."

While Canadian officials are investigating whether Mr. Trabelsi has met all the criteria to retain his permanent residency, they privately admit they may have little power to expel him.

Permanent residents can lose their right to stay in Canada if they have not spent two of the past five years here. But given that Mr. Trabelsi is already in Montreal, he could claim refugee status and stay in the country for years as the case plays out.

With a report by Campbell Clark in Ottawa

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