The Canadian government says the brother-in-law of ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has applied for refugee status in Canada, effectively blocking efforts to extradite him to the North African country.
Belhassen Trabelsi, a billionaire Tunisian businessman and brother of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, reportedly arrived in Canada last week with his family.
As the first lady’s oldest brother, he was known as the Trabelsi clan chieftain and is suspected of running the family’s many mafia-style rackets.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Saturday that Trabelsi had submitted a claim for asylum.
Cannon had said earlier that the government would try to comply with Tunisia’s extradition request, but under Canadian law, it could take years to decide the asylum and extradition cases, given the lengthy appeals process.
“We’ve indicated that these people are not welcome in Canada, but obviously that having been stated, Canada is nonetheless a country that has legislation,” Cannon said. “We do abide by the rule of law.”
Canada also said it will also freeze Trabelsi’s assets. Cannon said every effort will be made to track down his accounts.
Trabelsi fled to Montreal with his family after an uprising toppled Ben Ali. It was not clear where Trabelsi went first after fleeing Tunisia. France had said some Ben Ali relatives went there, but were “not welcome” to stay.
Trabelsi has permanent resident status in Canada, although officials suggested his residency status could be revoked because he has not spent at least two of the last five years here, as required by law.
Cannon said authorities are in contact with Trabelsi’s lawyer in Montreal.
Huge street protests forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power. Tunisia has issued an arrest warrant for the ousted leader, accusing him of taking money out of the country illegally and other charges. Interpol said its Tunis bureau issued a global alert seeking the arrest of six family members, but their names have not been made public.
Ben Ali, his wife and their clan have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves. In France, where family members are believed to have assets ranging from apartments to racehorses, Paris prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into their holdings.
Nejmeddine Lakhal, a spokesman at the Tunisian embassy in Ottawa, said the embassy had received the extradition request for Belhassen Trabelsi and forwarded it to Canada’s foreign affairs department. He said Trabelsi’s diplomatic passport has been canceled.
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