Ex SNC-Lavalin exec Riadh Ben Aïssa to be sent back to Canada

A Swiss court accepts a plea agreement and convicts the former head of construction for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin for bribery, corruption and money laundering, clearing the way for his extradition from Switzerland back to Canada.

Ruling marks first conviction in SNC-Lavalin scandal, executive to be extradited

Former SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president Riadh Ben Aïssa is wanted on additional criminal charges in Canada stemming from allegations of orchestrating a $22.5-million kickback scheme to win the $1.3-billion contract to build the McGill University super hospital. (Radio-Canada)

A Swiss court today accepted a plea agreement and has convicted the former head of construction for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin for bribery, corruption and money laundering, clearing the way for his extradition from Switzerland back to Canada.

Riadh Ben Aïssa, who has been held in a Swiss prison for 29 months, was dressed in a dark dress jacket and grey trousers and was accompanied by two policemen on his arrival today to appear before a panel of Swiss judges in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Today's hearing involves a panel of judges at this federal tribunal building in Bellinzona, Switzerland. (Luc Tremblay/Radio-Canada)

The panel said it accepted a plea agreement reached last month between prosecutors and Riadh Ben Aïssa, former executive vice-president of SNC Lavalin.

A judge read through each of the formal charges that he funnelled bribes to Saadi Gadhafi, son of Libya's former dictator, in exchange for SNC Lavalin winning contracts, as well as taking commissions for himself asking Ben Aïssa whether the charges were accurate.

"Yes," he responded.

He declined to make any further comment when offered an opportunity to make a statement on the record.

A judge also asked him about his remaining assets, and Ben Aïssa replied he has real estate in Monaco and some family assets in Tunisia.

Asked whether he still has any other revenue, Ben Aïssa stated that he can not answer that question because he's been in jail and unable to access or see his other financial holdings for the past 2½ years.

Ben Aïssa is formally convicted of bribery, corporate corruption and laundering hundreds of millions of dollars tied to company projects in Libya.

Week in Switzerland

Acceptance of this plea arrangement means there will be no lengthy trial and Ben Aïssa has now been sentenced to his time already served with the expectation he'll be held in custody to 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 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.

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.

Wednesday's criminal conviction marks a first in the SNC Lavalin scandal which has seen seven former executives and staff charged with bribery and corruption related offences in Libya, Algeria, Bangladesh and in Montreal.

To recoup $14M

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 will recoup $14 million US seized by Swiss authorities from accounts controlled by Ben Aïssa.

Ben Aïssa will be forced to forfeit ownership of an apartment in Paris.

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

SNC-Lavalin said in a statement Wednesday that it was "pleased to have been recognized as an injured party in these proceedings and to have recovered certain amounts of money from Mr. Ben Aissa while preserving the company's right to assert other civil claims against Mr. Ben Aissa in the future, including for the recovery of additional funds."

Today's hearing marked 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.