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Fighting from the shadows: Tunisian ruling bigwig no-show at immigration hearing

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MONTREAL - A reclusive Tunisian billionaire who was a key member of the now deposed ruling clan is fighting for the right to stay in Canada, though he's waging his battle from the shadows.

Belhassen Trabelsi has been in Canada since January 2011 after fleeing his country in the midst of a revolution, but he has remained out of the spotlight and failed to show up even for his own Immigration and Refugee Board appeal Monday.

Trabelsi said through his lawyers that he is fearful for his safety and that of his family. He has hired his own security detail and said he feared being followed by a crowd of local Tunisians who'd hoped to see him in the flesh on Monday.

Trabelsi, his wife and two daughters arrived last year in Canada on a private jet as the regime of his brother-in-law, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was collapsing, and other family members were believed to have fled to Saudi Arabia.

The family was accused of operating like the Mafia — extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small, and divvying up plum concessions among its members.

Reports have referred to Trabelsi as the clan chieftain, who presided over the rackets. He controlled or owned a variety of holdings that included airlines, hotels, media properties and banks. In a leaked diplomatic cable from 2008, U.S. diplomats referred to Trabelsi as the "most notorious family member."

He has since asked for forgiveness and said he is ready to return home voluntarily, to be judged for any mistakes he may have committed.

"Even if I commited errors, voluntarily or involuntarily, I'm ready to be accountable and face justice," he recently wrote in a note to the Tunisian people. "I never intended to harm my country or its people."

Trabelsi has been quietly living in Montreal, with his family, ever since the regime fell. His case went before an Immigration and Refugee Board appeal division, where he's fighting a decision to have his Canadian permanent residency status revoked.

He failed to convince Federal Court last week that the hearing be held in private. His lawyer, Stephanie Valois, told the board that while Trabelsi accepted the decision, he would not show up in person.

A board member agreed to hear the arguments, denying federal lawyers' request for an immediate rejection of the appeal because Trabelsi was absent.

To keep one's permanent residence status, a person must remain in Canada for at least two years out of every five. Those who live outside of Canada can also maintain their status if they meet certain criteria — including accompanying a Canadian citizen abroad, or by working full-time for a Canadian business or provincial government.

Trabelsi lawyers admitted that he had failed to meet that requirement, but they steered the board towards evidence already in the case file about security and safety concerns.

Trabelsi has also applied for refugee status, which could keep him in Canada for an extended period of time while his case plays out.

The federal government has been clear that it doesn't want Trabelsi here and would rather see him sent back to his North African homeland. Canadian government lawyers said Monday that they want an expulsion order against the family renewed.

Government lawyers noted that Trabelsi had been in Canada for only about 20 days in a five-year span before taking flight here. They compared his family to tourists, rather than permanent residents.

Trabelsi has also made news in Tunisia in recent weeks, where he published an open letter apologizing and expressing his desire to return home. Federal lawyers pounced on those statements as proof that Trabelsi's professed fears about returning to Tunisia are groundless.

Trabelsi has been charged and sentenced in absentia in his native Tunisia, where he was once a powerful businessman. In September, Trabelsi was sentenced to 15 years and fined $500,000 for corruption, unlawful trade of precious metals and unlawful transfer of foreign currency.

In December, he received a 21-month sentence for unlawful possession of archaeological pieces.

There are clear signs that he would face a fair and equitable justice system upon his return, federal lawyer Catherine Raymond argued.

"He's acting in a contradictory fashion," said Raymond. "It's our feeling that he no longer fears any threat in Tunisia or that it no longer exists."

Canadian authorities moved to revoke his permanent residence status within days of his arrival in Canada, but the status remains valid pending his appeal.

His no-show didn't surprise the more than 70 Tunisian Montrealers who packed a separate room to catch a glimpse of the seldom-seen Trabelsi. Many more were turned away because of a lack of space.

"It's a paradox; one week ago he sent a letter saying he's offering a mea culpa and wants to go back to Tunisia (but he) wants to protect himself from the Tunisian community here," said Mourad Bendjennet, a Tunisian Montrealer who attended Monday's hearing.

Bendjennet said it was important for community members to be there to remind the public that all assets in Canada that belong to the Tunisian people must be frozen.

Board member Marie-Claude Paquette says she'll deliberate before rendering a written judgment at a later date.

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