NEWS

Ex SNC-Lavalin exec Riadh Ben Aïssa's fate in hands of Swiss judges

10/01/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
The former head of construction for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin could find out as early as today whether his imprisonment in Switzerland will end and he'll be extradited back to Canada. 

A panel of Swiss judges is holding a hearing today in Bellinzona, Switzerland, on whether to accept a plea agreement reached last month between prosecutors and Riadh Ben Aïssa, former executive vice-president of SNCLavalin. 

Ben Aïssa has been jailed for 29 months on accusations of bribery and laundering hundreds of millions of dollars tied to company projects in Libya. 

If the deal is accepted by the court, he would forgo a lengthy trial in Switzerland and face near-immediate extradition back to Canada, where he is wanted on criminal charges stemming from separate allegations of orchestrating a $22.5-million kickback scheme to win the $1.3-billion contract to build McGill University's new super hospital. 

A source familiar with the Swiss case said if the court accepts the plea deal today, Mr. Ben Aïssa will likely remain in Switzerland for another week or two to deal with outstanding legal issues before he is extradited back to Canada.

According to the agreement, released to CBC/Radio Canada in advance of today’s hearing, Ben Aïssa is prepared to plead guilty to money laundering, corporate corruption and bribery involving hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts in Libya and members of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi's family.

In exchange, he would be sentenced to the time he has already served, with the understanding he still faces arrest and further prosecution on his return to Canada.

Swiss prosecutors agreed to drop a charge of embezzlement, noting that "it was not particularly clear to what extent SNC-Lavalin Group knew of payments" totalling millions of dollars made to various companies held by Ben Aïssa for his own personal benefit.

The deal also notes that Ben Aïssa, until his promotion in 2006, worked under his predecessor executive vice-president Sami Bebawi, who Swiss prosecutors assert also benefited personally from payments tied to Libya projects.

In Canada, the RCMP is still probing the actions of SNC-Lavalin and its senior executives. However, in the Swiss case, SNC-Lavalin is formally acknowledged as a "victim," with prosecutors noting the company and shareholders lost profits from Ben Aïssa’s bribe payments and apparent skimming of secret commissions he charged to suppliers on SNC Lavalin’s Libya projects.

Under the plea agreement, SNC-Lavalin is slated to recoup $14 million seized by Swiss authorities from accounts controlled by Ben Aïssa.

The deal also guarantees that Ben Aïssa's wife can keep possession of an apartment in Monaco and the holdings of a bank account in her name at Arab Bank in Geneva.

Today’s hearing will mark Ben Aïssa’s first public appearance since his arrest in April 2012. According to his family, he’s been held in near-solitary confinement 23 hours a day, with access to sunlight for only one hour each day.

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