All eyes may be on the Egyptian chapter of North Africa’s uprisings but in Canada much of the focus remains on Tunisia’s fallen regime. Keeping them there is Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of deposed Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Montréal last month along with his family, nannies and a reported multi billion-dollar fortune.
Three weeks after arriving via private jet, Trabelsi remains in Canada despite an international warrant for his arrest by Tunisia’s new transitional government. Unsurprisingly, Trabelsi has received a frigid welcome from Canada’s 20,000-strong expat Tunisian community, vocally demanding for Trabelsi’s arrest, extradition and trial back home for theft.
“He deserves a fair trial, but it must be held in Tunisia,” says Haroun Bouazzi, spokesperson for the Montréal-based Tunisian Solidarity Group (TSG), which has led numerous anti-Trabelsi rallies, including one in Ottawa this week. “There are reports of Trabelsi and his family escaping with up to $4bn,” he continues. “That’s 15 per cent of Tunisia’s entire GDP.”
While groups such as the TSG have garnered ample media attention and public support, the Canadian government appears unable – or unwilling – to expel Trabelsi quickly. Canada not only lacks a formal extradition treaty with Tunisia, but Trabelsi arrived legally using his long-time “permanent residency” status. Although Ottawa has since revoked his residency, Trabelsi is apparently appealing that ruling and now applying for refugee status.
Although both manoeuvres are likely to fail, the process could take up to a decade to complete – with Trabelsi remaining in Canada throughout. “Tabrelsi will almost certainly be rejected,” says Khaled Mouammar, National President of the Canadian Arab Federation. “But meanwhile, as he bides his time here, Tunisians are growing angrier and angrier at the man who robbed their economy of so much.”
While legality is one thing, political will – or a lack thereof – is something else entirely, say Bouazzi and Mouammar. True, Ottawa might be unable to immediately expel Trabelsi, but they could make his time in Canada much less pleasant by seizing his assets or requiring him to wait in a public detention centre, like most other Tunisian asylum-seekers.
Instead, Trabelsi remains secluded in presumed luxury – far from the public eye and his irate fellow-country men. “Like many western nations, Canada was invested in these so-called ‘moderate’ Arab leaders and never fully washes their hands of them – even when they fall from power,” Mouammar says. “Believe me, if these folks had been from Iran, the government would have quickly taken far harsher action.”