Reclusive Tunisian billionaire, ex-prez’s brother-in-law, has date with immigration

MONTREAL – A billionaire member of Tunisia’s once-dominant ruling clan whose stay in Canada since last year has been shrouded in mystery is scheduled to make a public appearance soon.

Belhassen Trabelsi has remained under the radar since a much-publicized arrival amid turmoil in his native Tunisia, where his family stands accused of siphoning millions of dollars from the state.

The Immigration and Refugee Board announced Wednesday that Trabelsi has a date before its appeal division on April 23 to fight a decision to revoke his residency and boot him out of the country.

According to the IRB, the reason for the hearing is the appeal of an order revoking his Canadian permanent resident status.

Federal authorities have been tight-lipped about Trabelsi’s case, but have confirmed that officials with Citizenship and Immigration Canada recommended his residency be revoked not long after he arrived in January 2011.

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Robert Gervais, a spokesman for the IRB, said Wednesday that because Trabelsi appealed, his status continues to be valid pending the result of that case.

“There was a removal order that was made but when someone appeals that removal order, he keeps his permanent resident’s status. They don’t lose it,” Gervais said. “He still has his permanent resident’s status until a decision is rendered by the board member in the case of the appeal.”

Trabelsi is thought to be quietly living in Montreal, with his family, ever since the Tunisian regime collapsed. The revolution toppled his brother-in-law, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Trabelsi, the family financier and eldest brother of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, used his Canadian status to fly into Montreal on a private jet on Jan. 20, 2011, as the regime was falling.

The family was accused of operating like the Mob: extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small, and divvying up plum concessions among its members.

News reports have referred to Trabelsi as the clan chieftain, who presided over Mafia-style rackets. He controlled or owned a variety of holdings that included airlines, hotels, media properties and banks.

In a leaked diplomatic cable from 2008, U.S. diplomats referred to Trabelsi as the “most notorious family member.”

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The IRB says no other information is public at this time, but says the hearing in April is expected to be public.

To keep permanent resident status in Canada, a person must be in Canada for at least two years during every five-year period. Those who live outside of Canada can also maintain their status if they meet certain criteria – including accompanying a Canadian citizen abroad, or by working full-time for a Canadian business or province.

According to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, when the rules are not met, a permanent resident may be deemed inadmissible and issued a removal order.

The Canadian government has said previously that Trabelsi sought refugee status in Canada and has the right to due process. The process to remove Trabelsi could potentially take years.

But Ottawa has also been clear that it doesn’t want him here and would rather see him sent to his native North African country.

The new government in Tunisia has issued an international warrant for the arrest of Trabelsi and has tried him in absentia. In September, Trabelsi was sentenced to 15 years and find $500,000 for corruption, unlawful trade of precious metals and unlawful transfer of foreign currency.

In December, he received a 21-month sentence for unlawful possession of archaeological pieces.

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In Canada, the government has worked to seize some of Trabelsi’s assets here.

Trabelsi’s arrival sparked protests from the local Tunisian community in Montreal and the spokesman for a local Tunisian group said he thinks the reclusive tycoon is still here and maintains a very low profile.

“I trust the Canadian government will … send him back to Tunisia for a fair trial,” said Haroun Bouazzi, spokesman for the Association of Human Rights in the Maghreb.

“People are still mobilized, they are really seeking something just for Tunisia and they’d love to see if Trabelsi will be sent back to Tunisia to be judged there.”

However, Tunisian media and blogs have been rife with speculation that Trabelsi may have fled Canada for locations such as Venezuela and Mexico.

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