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The Globe and Mail

Canada moves to extradite, freeze assets of exiled Tunisian billionaire

Security personnel guard the entrance to the Chateau Vaudreuil Hotel in Vaudreuil, west of Montreal,on Jan. 27, 2011, where Belhassen Trabelsi is believed to be staying.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal government says it will move as fast as it can to extradite the wealthy relative of Tunisia's former president who fled to Montreal, and is seeking to freeze his assets.

Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, is accused of using his political connections to amass a fortune before he quit the country and flew to Montreal with his family aboard a private jet Jan. 20.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon says Ottawa is looking for a legal avenue to return him to Tunisia, where the new government is seeking to prosecute him.

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"We will find - obviously within existing Canadian law - the means that will ensure that we can comply with the Tunisian government's request as quickly as possible, so this individual is no longer on Canadian territory," Mr. Cannon said. He also said that the federal government would make every effort to find and freeze Mr. Trabelsi's assets.

The question now is whether Ottawa's legal powers match its rhetoric - or whether Mr. Trabelsi will be able to fight his expulsion for years.

The RCMP say they have yet to receive a warrant for Mr. Trabelsi's arrest. Tunisia's request for his arrest has no legal impact until Canadian authorities determine there is grounds for arrest, and issue a warrant here.

Ottawa is now working on two avenues to remove him: by deporting under immigration laws and by extraditing him for criminal prosecution. But both can be challenged in time-consuming legal procedures.

Federal immigration authorities have revoked Mr. Trabelsi's permanent resident status in Canada, obtained in the 1990s, but he can appeal, and even if that fails, claim refugee status and file appeals to delay his removal from Canada.

Extradition is usually a faster way to expel someone, but even that typically takes two years, and in this case, could be complicated. Canada has no extradition treaty with Tunisia, so it would have to extradite him under a UN anticorruption convention or ad hoc agreement.

But that is likely to open up new avenues for legal challenges, said international criminal lawyer Leo Adler. "The first question I would ask if he's arrested is, under what authority?" he said. Tunisia's own compliance with the corruption treaty and the chaotic nature of Tunisia's current government could all open grounds for a legal challenge, he said. The question is whether Mr. Trabelsi has the desire and the finances to fight, he added.

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The Trabelsi clan, the siblings of Mr. Ben Ali's notoriously ostentatious wife, Leila, are accused of amassing billions through control of major chunks of the Tunisian economy; U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks compared their business tactics to mafia strong-arming. But several countries are moving to freeze their assets, and if Canada freezes Mr. Trabelsi's funds, it could have an impact on his ability to fight extradition.

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