A Halifax businessman is believed to be the first person to be charged with violating Canada’s economic sanctions against Syria.

Nader Mohamad Kalai, 55, is accused of making an investment in Syria “involving a dealing in property held by a person in Syria or a Syrian national not ordinarily resident in Canada.”

The Canada Border Services Agency alleges Kalai made a payment of 15 million Syrian pounds to a company called Syrialink on Nov. 27, 2013.

Nader Mohamad Kalai.


Syrialink is a real estate and telecommunications company. Based on exchange rates at the time, that payment would have been the equivalent of about $140,000.

Following a lengthy investigation, a charge under the Special Economic Measures (Syria) Regulations was sworn by a CBSA investigator last week.

Kalai is scheduled to be arraigned in Halifax provincial court Aug. 14.

A Syrian national who has permanent resident status in Canada, Kalai is owner and president of Telefocus Consultants Inc., a telecommunications consulting company that was founded in 2009.

His wife, Miriam Al-Haj Hussain, is listed as secretary-treasurer of the company, which operates out of the family’s home on Young Avenue in south-end Halifax and also has an office in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Canadian government first announced economic sanctions against Syria in 2011 in response to President Bashar Assad’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests calling for democratic reform.

Countless protesters were killed and thousands of civilians were detained arbitrarily and tortured or executed. There was a mass exodus of Syrians to neighbouring countries, resulting in a refugee crisis.

The Special Economic Measures (Syria) Regulations contain sanctions against members of Assad’s regime and restrict dealings with almost 300 designated persons and entities.

The regulations also prohibit activities such as exporting goods to Syria, investing in Syria and providing financial services in relation to a person in Syria.

Charges can only be laid with the consent of Canada’s attorney general.

Violations of the sanctions are punishable under the Special Economic Measures Act. The maximum penalty is a $25,000 fine and one year in jail for a summary conviction, and five years in prison if the Crown proceeds by indictment.

In December 2016, the CBSA executed warrants to search Kalai’s home, office and electronic devices, as well as his accountant’s office.

Documents submitted to a judge to obtain those warrants reveal the CBSA opened an investigation in June 2016 after an intelligence officer received anecdotal information that Kalai was in business with individuals associated with the Syrian regime.

“I believe that Nader Kalai is working for numerous businesses abroad which he has not declared to the Canadian government,” CBSA investigator Jason Cannon wrote in applying for the search warrants.

“Through my investigation to date into Kalai’s background, I believe that he made false statements to Citizenship and Immigration Canada regarding his work history. By concealing his work history, Kalai was improperly granted a Canadian Permanent Resident Card.

“Additionally, through my investigation, I further believe that Kalai has been involved in the management of multiple businesses which have interests in Syria, Austria and the United Arab Emirates, and which are associated with at least two Syrian nationals who are sanctioned by the Canadian government for their involvement with the Syrian regime.”

Those individuals are identified in the documents as Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman who is considered one of the most powerful men in Syria, and his wife, Razan Othman.

Makhlouf owns Syriatel, the largest cellphone service provider in Syria. Kalai was Syriatel’s company’s chief executive officer before he moved to Halifax in 2009.

The documents also mention the Syrian president and three entities designated in the sanctions: Syriatel, Cham Holdings and Al Mashreq Investment Fund.

In the filing, Cannon said the Canadian embassy in Vienna received an email from Kalai’s cousin in June 2016 stating that Kalai was a business partner of Makhlouf and had been involved in money laundering.

The cousin said Kalai had real estate and commercial assets of about US$200 million scattered around Syria, Austria, Beirut, Egypt, Great Britain and the UAE. He also said Kalai owned bank shares worth more than US$20 million and had a monthly income of about US$250,000.

Cannon followed up with the cousin and also spoke with another source, Kalai’s brother-in-law, who said he had been hired by Kalai and Makhlouf in 2011 to run some of their businesses in Syria, including the Talisman Hotel and the Syrian Yacht Club.

The brother-in-law said Kalai and Makhlouf own about 45 businesses together and utilize people like him to hide their involvement.

In August 2016, the CBSA got court permission to copy Kalai’s passports upon his next entry to Canada. Cannon received copies of Kalai’s two Syrian passports the following month and determined that he had made 412 entries and exits in the Middle East, Europe and Canada since February 2009.

Cannon gained access to Kalai’s Yahoo email account in October 2016 and found evidence that he was involved in businesses in Austria, Lebanon and Syria from 2012 onward — activity that he did not disclose in his 2013 application to renew his permanent residency.

Some emails to Kalai, Cannon said, contained information on financial updates, property ownership and accounts payable regarding Syrian companies such as Kalai Industries, Interconstruct Ltd., Castle Invest Holding, the Syrian Yacht Club and the Talisman Hotel.

“This type of activity is contrary to the Special Economic Measures (Syria) Regulations,” the investigator wrote.

A 2016 article in a British newspaper, the Independent, said Kalai was a “chum” of Assad.

From 2009 to 2011, Kalai also operated M & N Art House, a Halifax company that bought and sold art.

The Canada Revenue Agency is also investigating Kalai. Its officers got court permission last month to carry out searches and seize records.

In seeking the warrants, revenue agency investigator Natalie Critch said she had reasonable grounds to believe Kalai did not report income of $851,269 on his tax returns for 2013 to 2016. She said that amount was based on an indirect verification of income and spending.

“The documents that I hope to obtain will be used to determine the amount of worldwide income Nader Kalai did not report on his TI General Income Tax and Benefit Return for 2013 to 2016, inclusive,” Critch said.

“The things that I hope to seize will also be used to determine whether Nader Kalai has wilfully understated his taxable income and has paid the correct amount of personal income tax.”

None of the allegations in the documents used to obtain the search warrants have been proven in court.