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SNC-Lavalin has opted for trial by judge in a case that could further damage the company’s image and the Liberal Party of Canada’s brand when the matter returns to court in September.
The Québec-based, global engineering firm stands accused of bribing Libyan officials with nearly $50 million between 2001-2011 to secure lucrative contracts in then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s troubled country.
The charges and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attempt to pressure his ex-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould into diverting criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin towards a remediation deal, sparked the biggest scandal the PM has weathered during his tenure.
His top advisor Gerald Butts resigned over the imbroglio and Trudeau excommunicated a pair of cabinet ministers from the party for disloyalty, including Wilson-Raybould but the evidence to come at SNC-Lavalin’s trial could be far more explosive.
Eighteen months before the United States lifted its designation of Libya as a state sponsor of terror – a designation it applied to the rogue state since 1979 – then-Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin flew to the country in December of 2004 with SNC-Lavalin brass to meet with Gaddafi.
“If you look at the statements from the Martin government at the time, they weren’t saying this Gaddafi was a good guy,” said Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch. “They were saying that they thought they might be able to push him in the right direction if they engaged with the country.”
Their tête-à-tête inside Gaddafi’s Bedouin tent in the Libyan desert was under the pretense of opening the north African nation to large-scale business with SNC-Lavalin.
While economic engagement by liberal democracies with hostile regimes is described as the realist approach to foreign policy, getting cozy with Gaddafi was a big gamble. Before the internet, Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Un, the Libyan dictator was an international bad-guy without equal.
After taking control of the oil-rich north African state in 1970, Gaddafi converted his desert fiefdom on the Mediterranean into a resort and training centre for some of the world’s most notorious terrorists and criminals.
In addition to providing haven and financing for the likes of the Irish Republican Army and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, Gaddafi’s secret police partook in their own brand of global terrorism.
Libyan agents were accused of bombing a West Berlin nightclub in a 1986 attack that killed two U.S. serviceman and a Turkish soldier, while the most infamous act of Libyan-backed terrorism remains the murder of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In 2009 when Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan agent convicted of the crime was given clemency by Scotland and returned to Gaddafi’s country, he was given a hero’s welcome.
Little more than two years later, anti-Gaddafi regime rebels spurred by the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, entered the Libyan capital of Tripoli and by October 20, 2011, Gaddafi had been captured and killed.
Errol Mendes is the former Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, he also directs University of Ottawa’s common law school and is a specialist in international law.
Given Gaddafi’s outlaw status, Mendes suspects dealing with the dictator and his pernicious ways were always part of SNC-Lavalin’s risk metric.
“It was very well known that this was a corrupt regime. That (SNC) were potentially aware of that at the highest levels of the company and yet they went ahead” Mendes said. “(Then the investigations) suddenly amounted to an extremely serious crime for which the company should’ve fessed up rather than being found out.”
“And It wasn’t even in Canada where the fraud and bribery was discovered…it was Switzerland that found out.”
In 2012, the Swiss arrested SNC executive Riadh Ben Aissa who spent two years imprisoned there before pleading guilty to money laundering. This cleared the way for for extradition to Canada where Ben Aissa cut a plea deal last summer and was sentenced to 51 months in prison for forging documents.
Back in February, the case against a second SNC-Lavalin excutive Stéphane Roy, was thrown out of court on grounds it had taken too long to come to trial.
Roy’s fraud and bribery charges stemmed from an RCMP investigation in which he allegedly conspired with Ben Aissa to smuggle Gaddafi’s son out of Libya as civil war hastened the collapse of the family’s regime.
Documents related to Roy’s prosecution that were made public following the Crown’s abandonment of the case indicated that SNC-Lavalin paid tens of thousands of dollars to acquire prostitutes for Gaddafi’s son Saadi Gaddafi when he visited Canada in 2008.
Other payments made related to Saadi’s Canadian excursions included bodyguards, box seats to a Spice Girls concert and $200,000 to redecorate a condo the dictator’s son purchased in Toronto.