MONTREAL – Tunisia has asked the international police organization Interpol to help arrest ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and members of his family who fled the country amid a popular uprising – including a brother-in-law who is reportedly staying in Montreal with his wife, four children and a nanny.
Tunisian Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said Wednesday the North African nation wants to try Ben Ali and his clan for "possession of (expropriated) property and transferring foreign currency abroad."
He named seven members of Ben Ali’s family in Tunisian custody but said that Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi, and Sakher al-Materi, Ben Ali’s son-in-law, had fled the country.
The name of Ben Ali’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, had also been presented to Interpol. Trabelsi and his family arrived in Montreal Thursday on a private jet and were staying in a hotel in the west end, according to several media reports. Trabelsi controlled Tunisia’s banking, communications and transport sectors. He was seen as the leader of the business interests of the ruling family’s clan, and is accused of siphoning billions of dollars out of the country.
The lavish spending of Ben Ali’s in-laws are among the main roots of the citizen unrest, which, coupled with anger over high unemployment rates and authoritarian rule, erupted into a popular revolution which on Jan. 14. forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia after 23 years as president.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the RCMP noted that Interpol’s call to locate members of the family does not constitute an arrest warrant under Canadian law.
The RCMP would only become involved once "an official request to investigate has been received through the Interpol network or other formal channels."
The RCMP directed requests for further information to the Foreign Affairs Department, which did not return calls Wednesday. Earlier this week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said some members of Ben Ali’s family are permanent residents and have the right to be in Canada, which could make it difficult to expel them.
Canada would not offer asylum to Ben Ali’s family, officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada said this weekend.
Members of Montreal’s Tunisian community repeated their demands that family members be sent back to Tunisia to face prosecution, and their assets be seized.
"It is very important they don’t let Belhassen Trabelsi fly away," said Haroun Bouazzi, spokesperson for a support group based in Montreal, home to half to the roughly 20,000 Tunisians living in Canada. "It’s true that being a permanent resident give him certain rights, but even Canadians can be sent out if they’re accused of crimes in other countries . . . Canada has to show that the values that the Tunisian people are fighting for today, like justice and democracy, are also present here."
The process could be further complicated by the fact Canada and Tunisia don’t have an agreement concerning the extradition of citizens, Bouazzi said.
Canadian Tunisians are planning a demonstration on Parliament Hill on Feb. 2.
Sakher al-Materi, Ben Ali’s son-in-law and another family member Tunisia has asked Interpol to help arrest, is listed as the owner of a $2.5-million home in Westmount, near downtown Montreal, on evaluation roles and official deeds. One of his children is Canadian by birth.
A woman at the house has said she and her husband purchased the home from al-Materi eight months ago, but official records have not been updated because of contractual issues revolving around outstanding roof repairs. She and her lawyer have not shown any proof of ownership, however, despite repeated requests over the last week.
Reuters, AFP contributed to this report