Belhassen Trabelsi is not your typical immigrant seeking refugee status in Canada. For starters, he arrived in Canada on a private jet. His family owned a $2.5 million mansion in Montreal -- at least until the Canadian government confiscated it. And unlike many people escaping their home countries, Trabelsi is fleeing a democratically elected government, one that came to power after the Tunisian people revolted against the rule of Trabelsi's brother-in-law, longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Trabelsi -- a balding, baby-faced 49-year-old with sunken eyes and a large double chin -- is the brother of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Belhassen Trabelsi is "the most notorious family member" in Ben Ali's extended family. The cables refer to the entire family as a "quasi-mafia," noting that "the Trabelsis' strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate." Described in the French press as a "hoodlum," Trabelsi profited from his sister's 1992 marriage, using public institutions and resources to create a Tunisian business empire that included luxury hotels, an airline, a radio station, a newspaper and two banks.
Trabelsi fled for Montreal when Tunisians took to the streets in the winter of 2011 to bring down the Ben Ali regime. Despite a request from the Tunisian government to extradite Trabelsi so that he may face justice, the Canadian authorities, by holding fast to legal procedures designed to protect the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, have allowed him to remain. Earlier this month, Trabelsi lost his bid to have his Canadian permanent residency reinstated, but it is likely he will remain in Canada for years while he appeals for refugee status.
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In many ways, Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution was a rejection of the corrupt system led by a small oligarchic clan in which Trabelsi figured so prominently. Yet even today, corruption remains one of Tunisia's major challenges in creating a democratic system. Tunisia has made some headway on the domestic front by confiscating local Ben Ali assets, bringing some of the old oligarchs into custody, and setting up anti-corruption mechanisms. Yet the new government is still struggling to fully reckon with the abuses of the past. One of the biggest challenges: Bringing all ex-regime figures to justice and recovering Tunisian financial assets -- over $15 billion by some estimates -- that were spirited away and hidden around the world.
"This is a fight between two groups: The Tunisian state and an international mafia," says Abderrahmane Ladgham, referring to the Trabelsi and Ben Ali family and those who continue to support them. Ladgham, a member of the coalition government's center-left Ettakatol party, is a deputy prime minister in charge of governance and the fight against corruption.
"The old regime had a face, a façade that it presented to the West, as a developed country, the good little boy of the World Bank, the good little boy of the IMF, a country open to tourism, to culture, and a second face which was repressive, intolerant, opaque, corrupted," says Ladgham. He insists that today's Tunisia, by contrast, is ready to face up to the abuses of the past, saying that the government is committed to transparency, "even if the dossiers or the reports are made against us [members of the government]."