Saadi went in the opposite direction, flying into the epicentre of the uprising in February, 2011. A United Nations investigation would later find that Moammar Gadhafi sent two trusted officials to “take control on the ground” in the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi. The UN report did not name either official, but a well-informed source says that one of them was Saadi.
Saadi had little experience with handling crises, much less a full-blown uprising, and the situation in Benghazi quickly went sideways. The BBC quoted a witness who said Saadi personally gave an order to shoot unarmed demonstrators. Saadi later denied this. But whatever the impetus, Libyan soldiers unleashed heavy weapons on the crowds. The United Nations Security Council reacted on Feb. 26, 2011, with a resolution that imposed a travel ban on Saadi and other members of Libya’s ruling family. In particular, Saadi was sanctioned for “command of military units involved in repression of demonstrations.” His bank accounts were frozen with another resolution the following month. Saadi would later escape to Niger, where he remains under what his lawyer describes as “virtual house arrest” because of the travel ban.
Even if the world had abruptly turned against him, Ben Aïssa did not abandon his favourite son of the dictator. An SNC insider says that during the first months of the revolution, Ben Aïssa continually assured fellow executives that the uprising would be crushed. That lingering sense of loyalty may help to explain a bizarre footnote to Ben Aïssa’s story: the tale of Cyndy Vanier and the alleged plot to smuggle Saadi to a safe house in Mexico.
On June 30, 2011, Ben Aïssa’s long-serving controller, Stéphane Roy, signed a deal with Vanier, a mediator whose prior experience was principally with Canadian native groups. The commission called for “fact finding and mediation.”
Vanier flew to the war zone on a private jet and put together a report. Vanier depicted NATO’s intervention as harmful to the Libyan government’s efforts to make peace—an unusual perspective at a time when regime soldiers were blasting rebels with artillery and truck-mounted rockets. SNC paid Vanier $100,000 for the five-page report. Mexican authorities arrested her in November, 2011, and accused her of working on a bigger project, a complex plan to start a new life for Saadi in a beachfront house. She denies wrongdoing, and remains jailed.
Ben Aïssa and Roy avoided trouble when Vanier was arrested, although Roy was in Mexico at the time. They remained with SNC until February, 2012, when the company ousted them amid a growing chorus of questions about SNC’s relationship with the Gadhafi family. Later that month, the company announced it was launching an internal investigation. The probe alleged that CEO Pierre Duhaime had improperly approved $56 million in payments to unknown “agents” hired by Ben Aïssa. Duhaime resigned in March and SNC referred the file to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which raided the company headquarters in April. That raid was reportedly conducted on the basis of information from Swiss authorities, who arrested Ben Aïssa shortly afterward on suspicion of corruption, fraud and money laundering.
The legal fallout may continue for years. Libya’s new revolutionary regime wants Saadi extradited to face trial in Tripoli, and has constructed courtrooms in an effort to persuade the international community that it is competent to hold fair proceedings. Saadi has hired a lawyer who specializes in war-crime charges.
If the RCMP goes ahead with a prosecution under Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, it would be the force’s first attempt to apply the law to a blue-chip company. So far, Canada has secured only two convictions under the act; the second is the one that bears on the SNC case. In 2011, Niko Resources, a mid-cap oil and gas firm based in Calgary, admitted that it had bribed a Bangladeshi energy minister by paying for his flights to Alberta and New York. An SNC spokeswoman has defended the company’s role in Saadi’s many trips to Canada as “hospitality.” But the Niko case suggests that the courts may take a different view.
These proceedings, along with those concerning Cyndy Vanier and the class-action lawsuits, should answer many questions about the rise and fall of Ben Aïssa. But one upshot of SNC-Lavalin’s colossal failure in Libya already seems clear. Not only is the world getting smaller, it’s also slowly becoming more democratic and transparent. If you do business with a despot, even an officially reformed one, you may—sooner or later—find yourself scattering your plans across a slippery marble floor and running for your life.
Research assistance by Hannah Mintz, Fatima Elkabti and Raghda Abouelnaga of the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism