Tunisia is seeking the extradition of former President Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali’s brother in law from France on charges of fraud, the justice ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
Interpol has informed the Tunisian authorities that Belhassen Trabelsi was arrested on Thursday in France; there are 17 Tunisian and 43 international arrest warrants outstanding for him. Whilst Paris has not commented on Trabelesi’s arrest, a source close to the investigation said that he was detained in the south of the country earlier in the week in connection with alleged financial wrongdoing.
The millionaire businessman and brother of Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi left Tunisia when the Arab Spring uprising ousted the veteran leader in 2011. Trabelsi had initially sought asylum in Canada, flying his family in a private jet to Montreal, but had his application denied in 2015. Before the authorities could deport him back to Tunisia, he vanished.
In 2008, a leaked US diplomatic cable claimed that Trabelsi was “the most notorious [Ben Ali] family member and is rumoured to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes.” The authorities in Tunis believe that he headed a network of officials who embezzled government funds during the Ben Ali regime.
Despite Trabelsi’s denial of any wrongdoing, his nephew Imed, who was also the President’s son-in-law, apologised to the Tunisian people in 2017, confessing to charges of corruption and accusing several associates who worked with him of still being involved in customs crimes.
Tunisia has been praised as a model of transition after its 2011 revolution, but it still struggles with economic reforms and corruption eight years after the fall of Ben Ali in protests triggered in part by official graft.
In 2017, the government confiscated the property and froze bank accounts of about 20 prominent businessmen arrested on suspicion of bribery and fraud. Tunisian Prime Minister Yousef Chahed vowed to be at “war” with any form of corruption.
In August, NGO Transparency International released a report in which it revealed that corruption remains “endemic in the Arab states”, after it found 19 of 21 Middle Eastern nations score “below 50” in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2017, which measures the intensity of corruption in the public sector.
Whilst Tunisia was found to have made progress, the report stated that it “witnessed a setback” with a controversial reconciliation law, a legal loophole which “grants amnesty” to public officials who served during Ben Ali’s regime.