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Former SNC-Lavalin vice-president Sami Bebawi leaves a courtroom in Montreal on Feb. 15, 2019.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Paying bribes to obtain lucrative Libyan construction contracts was once the business model for a division of SNC-Lavalin, prosecutors said Thursday as the fraud and corruption trial of a former employee of the engineering giant got underway.

Sami Bebawi, 73, faces eight charges including fraud, corruption, laundering proceeds of crime, possession of stolen goods and bribery of foreign officials. The case involves contracts tied to the Libyan dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi.

Bebawi was charged in 2014 and has pleaded not guilty.

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Superior Court Justice Guy Cournoyer told the jurors that Bebawi is presumed innocent and it was up to prosecutors to prove the accusations beyond any reasonable doubt.

He added “the entire public debate on the SNC-Lavalin affair is without any pertinence.”

Prosecutor Anne-Marie Manoukian told jurors the trial “is a case of international fraud and corruption.” She said the accused worked to obtain lucrative contracts in Libya by paying bribes.

“In fact,” said Manoukian, “that plan became the business model.” She said Bebawi received millions of dollars in the deals, which began in the late 1990s.

The first person to take the stand was the Crown’s main witness, former SNC-Lavalin executive Riadh Ben Aissa, who worked under Bebawi.

Ben Aissa testified about the problems SNC-Lavalin encountered with its first contract in Libya. SNC-Lavalin had entered into an agreement with a company to bring water through pipelines to coastal villages, a project dear to the former dictator.

SNC-Lavalin had requested more money to cover additional costs but its contractual partner refused. Ben Aissa said he was tasked by Bebawi to recover the money. He told jurors his mandate was to get the money “by any means.”

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Ben Aissa said a contact put him in touch with Saadi Gadhafi, the former dictator’s son, in Tripoli. The men developed an affinity for each other and even shared a meal together in Rome.

After SNC-Lavalin’s client learned of Ben Aissa’s relationship with Saadi Gadhafi, the company changed its tone. Ben Aissa said payments began arriving in SNC-Lavalin’s bank accounts.

In total, prosecutors allege Ben Aissa collected 6 million Deutsche Marks (DM) — the official currency of the German state at the time — and Bebawi got the same. They also allege Saadi Gadhafi received 7.5 million DM.

Ben Aissa said the financial relationship continued with the signing of other contracts. The witness is expected to elaborate when his testimony continues Friday.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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