Sami Bebawi’s role in SNC-Lavalin’s Libyan dealings has been grossly exaggerated by unreliable witnesses during his trial, a Quebec Superior Court jury was told Tuesday.
On trial for fraud and corruption, Bebawi, 73, did not present a defence. But in its closing arguments to jurors Tuesday, his defence counsel focused on discrediting the Crown’s key witnesses in the case.
“If a messenger gives you a reason not to trust them, beware of their message,” defence lawyer Alexandre Bien-Aimé repeated to jurors, arguing they had plenty of reasons to doubt some of the witnesses heard.
Top among them, Bien-Aimé said, is Bebawi’s former subordinate, Riahd Ben Aissa, described during the trial as the firm’s point man in Libya.
Ben Aissa pleaded guilty in Switzerland to charges of corrupting a foreign public official and laundering money. He also signed an agreement to co-operate with Canadian authorities while detained.
During the trial, Ben Aissa insisted every decision he made in Libya was approved by Bebawi and that Bebawi had pressured him to take any means necessary — and pay whoever he needed — to settle a claim the firm filed over a money-losing contract.
“Do you really believe Mr. Ben Aissa told Bebawi everything? Do you really believe he was the type of person who respected the company hierarchy the way he said he does,” Bien-Aimé asked jurors.
“Ben Aissa understood the company and Libya better than Sami Bebawi,” he said. “He was very well connected there, not Sami Bebawi.”
In addition to the fraud charges, Bebawi is also charged with bribing a foreign public official: former dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Saadi Gadhafi.
Ben Aissa testified the pressure Bebawi put on him led him to develop a relationship with the younger Gadhafi. The Crown contends the firm then leveraged Gadhafi, through bribes and kickbacks, to ensure it received other lucrative contracts in the country.
Bien-Aimé asked jurors Tuesday to question whether Saadi Gadhafi should truly be considered a foreign public official.
“Being Moammar Gadhafi’s son does not make you a foreign public official,” he said. “See Saadi Gadhafi for what he is — nothing more than Moammar Gadhafi’s son, with no real power of his own.”
The trial heard how SNC-Lavalin bought Gadhafi a $25-million luxury yacht after he helped the company secure a multimillion-dollar contract.
But nothing in the evidence points to Bebawi’s involvement in the decision, Bien-Aimé argued. He reminded jurors that Bebawi had said he passed the request to buy the yacht up the chain to former CEO Jacques Lamarre and was out of the country when discussions about the purchase took place in Montreal.
“Clearly, he was not actively involved in the decision,” Bien-Aimé said.
As for the roughly $26 million the Crown says Bebawi pocketed through SNC-Lavalin’s dealing in Libya, sent to him from a shell company Ben Aissa had established, Bien-Aimé described it as a “smokescreen.”
Though he said the defence can’t deny the shell company, Duvel Inc., transferred money to Bebawi, that shouldn’t be enough for the jurors to convict him.
“Of course, you’ll ask yourself why Mr. Bebawi received millions of dollars,” he said. “What we submit is, it’s simply because Jacques Lamarre decided to pay Bebawi extra for his particular expertise in managing projects.”
Bien-Aimé dissected each of the company’s major contracts in Libya during the years related to the case. He said there was no evidence in any of them that the firm defrauded the Libyan government, arguing the contracts were completed to everyone’s satisfaction and without any price inflation.
“Nothing in (the Crown’s) evidence allows you to determine if Saadi Gadhafi was a foreign public official,” he said. “Nothing in this evidence can help you determine if the Crown has proven without reasonable doubt that there was any fraud here.”
Superior Court Justice Guy Cournoyer is expected to instruct the jurors on Wednesday. They will then be sequestered until they reach a verdict.