Tunisian asset freeze in Ottawa's sights

The federal government has introduced a bill to lower the standard of evidence it needs to freeze the assets of leaders of foreign regimes.
Protesters burn a photo of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in Tunis in January. The Canadian government has moved to enable it to freeze assets of the former regime. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

Canada will soon be able to freeze the assets of the former Tunisian regime.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon announced Thursday the government has introduced legislation to make sure it has the power to freeze the assets of foreign heads of state.

The government says it was able to stop Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his close associates from accessing their assets in Canada because of a UN resolution passed last week. But Tunisia was a different case.

With the brother-in-law and sister of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Montreal, opposition MPs have been demanding the government take the same action against that regime.

"This would allow the government of Canada to order the freezing of assets or the restraint of property of foreign, politically exposed persons ... so that assets of foreign nationals can be rapidly frozen under certain circumstances," Nicholson said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about the legislation Thursday in Toronto.

"As I said in the House of Commons several times, the government is trying in every way possible to freeze the assets of former dictators," Harper said in French.

"If we're going to freeze someone's assets, we have to have a legal process in place in order to do that. And unfortunately, the previous legislation or the legislation now in place does not actually give us the powers to do that," Harper said.

"This new legislation, and I do hope that we will have the support of the parties to get it through quickly, gives us more powers to take action in those cases and in future cases as well. Because I think it’s quite clear that these cases will continue to come forward."

The proposed legislation imposes three conditions: that the subject of the freeze has held important positions in the state, that the state is in internal turmoil and that it's in the interest of international relations to freeze the assets.

It recognizes that it could be hard to get evidence from another country during a period of conflict.

Under the bill, a freeze would expire automatically after five years unless it's extended.

How much Gadhafi money in Canada?

Speaking on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, Nicholson wouldn't say how much money Gadhafi had in Canada. He said that is a policing matter and his job is to give law enforcement agencies what they need to do their jobs.

"It's something that we have to have in Canada, and in my opinion, there are gaps in the law," Nicholson said.

The bill was introduced in the House of Commons Thursday morning and has to pass through the House and the Senate before it becomes law.

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said his party needs to look at the legislation, but in principle doesn't have a problem with it. He said the party is speaking with the government about getting it through the House with half a day of committee hearings.

"We certainly recognize the urgency and the legitimacy of passing this legislation," LeBlanc said.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar questioned why it took problems with Gadhafi and Ben Ali for Canada to act.

"We knew there were dictators stuffing money into our banks," Dewar said.

"We don't know (who else has money here), and that's something we need a full accounting on."