Tunisian ex-ruling clan member loses fight for Canadian residency, seeks refugee status

MONTREAL – A reclusive Tunisian businessman and key member of that country’s former ruling clan will turn to a bid for refugee status after failing to have his Canadian residency reinstated.

The appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board said in a decision released Tuesday that Belhassen Trabelsi and his family had failed to convince the board they should have their status renewed.

A departure order was slapped against them – but Trabelsi will remain here for now.

The family’s bid for refugee status is still pending and that will keep them in Canada for an extended period of time while the refugee application is considered.

Trabelsi has been in Montreal since January 2011 after fleeing his country while the regime of his brother-in-law, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was collapsing. He is accused of looting Tunisia’s public treasury and faces a variety of charges in his homeland.

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At his residency hearing, Trabelsi had argued through lawyers that he should be allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds and that he feared for his life if he returned.

But IRB board member Marie-Claude Paquette wrote that Trabelsi failed to make that case. She wrote that it was clear the family had stronger ties to Tunisia, where they’d lived their whole lives, than to Canada.

Paquette noted that reports of recent court hearings in Tunisia revealed no signs of mistreatment. In one case, one of Trabelsi’s brothers-in-law saw a sentence reduced – from 15 years to just 16 days – for writing bad cheques.

In another dispatch, 22 members of the Ben Ali clan were brought to trial and several were acquitted, some were granted bail and a handful were detained.

“The panel is of the opinion that the documentary evidence on file is insufficient to establish that the Tunisian judicial system is still corrupt, that the principal appellant (Trabelsi) could not receive a fair trial and present a defence, and that the new Tunisian authorities mistreat detainees,” wrote Paquette in a decision dated May 4.

Trabelsi’s Canadian residency status was revoked because he did not stay in Canada for at least 750 days over a five-year period, an allegation that Trabelsi did not deny.

Trabelsi, his wife, their two daughters, and a nanny arrived last year in Canada on a private jet. Since then, they have lived a quiet life out of the spotlight, hiring a private security detail.

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But the board found that Trabelsi has done little to establish himself in Canada since arriving in 2011.

“The appellants have entirely failed to demonstrate any significant degree of establishment in Canada since their return,” Paquette said.

Trabelsi did not show up for his hearing in late April after failing in a legal bid to have it held behind closed doors.

His lawyers told Paquette that Trabelsi feared for his safety, given the heavy media coverage and Tunisian protesters present for the public hearing.

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