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Tunisian fugitive ready to face trial at home

A little more than a year after he fled to Canada, Belhassen Trabelsi, a wealthy relative of Tunisia's former president, is ready to return to his home country and face trial, one of his lawyers says.

In an interview from Tunis on Friday, Mohamed Hédi Lakhoua confirmed that he had been mandated to release to Tunisian media this week a letter from Mr. Trabelsi.

Mr. Trabelsi says in the letter that he wants to clear his name "in a fair, equitable trial before a Tunisian tribunal."

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A brother-in-law of ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Mr. Trabelsi flew with his family to Montreal in January, 2011, after the regime's collapse.

In the five-page letter written in Arabic, Mr. Trabelsi concedes that he had enjoyed a privileged position and apologized. But in the same breath, he denied any wrongdoing, saying that he was unfairly portrayed as having plundered the public coffers.

"Even if I voluntarily or involuntarily made mistakes, I am ready to be accountable and to appear before justice, even though I never intended to harm my country or its people," the letter says, according to a translation by the Tunisian news agency TAP.

Mr. Lakhoua said his client wants to end the "demonization" he has faced in Tunisia.

"He is speaking to Tunisia and the Tunisian people. He is hoping for a reply from the authorities."

Mr. Trabelsi was to appear in Montreal before the Immigration and Refugee Board on April 23 to appeal a removal order. He has applied for refugee status in Canada, but the government says he is not welcome.

Tunisia has asked Canada to return Mr. Trabelsi, but the two countries lack a bilateral extradition treaty.

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Earlier this fall, a Tunis court sentenced Mr. Trabelsi in absentia to a 15-year jail term, according to local media reports.

Mr. Lakhoua said his client is facing accusations of abuse of power in Tunisia.

He said Mr. Trabelsi acknowledges that he benefitted from the "indulgence" of Tunisian banks, which readily offered him loans while his brother-in-law was in power, but "he never took anything from the state."

Mr. Trabelsi was an entrepreneur whose work benefited his country, his lawyer said. "His projects were flourishing and he employed more than 5,000 staffers."

So far, Mr. Trabelsi's letter has not received a response from Tunisian officials, Mr. Lakhoua said.

After Mr. Trabelsi's arrival in Canada, Ottawa rushed through a special law giving itself new powers to freeze assets of people from Tunisia and Egypt suspected of corruption.

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As a result, Mr. Trabelsi's finances came under scrutiny from RCMP investigators, who conducted a search warrant at the offices of his Montreal lawyer last December.

According to an RCMP affidavit filed in support of that search, within days of his arrival in a private jet, Mr. Trabelsi was wired $1.4-million from a bank in Lebanon.

Life in Montreal wasn't trouble-free. He enrolled his three children at The Study, a top private school in Westmount, paying $28,000 for three months. However, within a month, the school asked that the Trabelsi children stop attending because of security concerns.

Last month, after a query from the opposition about the assets of the Ben Ali clan in Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that officials have so far frozen $122,000 in bank accounts and $2.55-million in real estate. The latter is likely a reference to a Westmount, Que., mansion bought in 2008 by a son-in-law of Mr. Ben Ali, Sakher el-Materi.

A source had previously said police believe that Ben Ali relatives had between $10-million and $20-million in Canada last spring.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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