​Cyndy Vanier sues SNC-Lavalin for $15M over Mexico jail ordeal

Consultant who spent 18 months behind bars denies Gadhafi smuggling plot, says she was waterboarded

By Dave Seglins, John Nicol, CBC News
Posted: Sep 14, 2015 6:10 PM ET Last Updated: Sep 14, 2015 6:10 PM ET

In a new court filing, Cyndy Vanier claims she was 'placed in a coffin and waterboarded' while imprisoned in Mexico on allegations she masterminded a plot to smuggle Moammar Gadhafi's son and relatives into Mexico. She is suing Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Inc.

A small-town Ontario consultant who spent 18 months in a sweltering Mexican jail is countersuing SNC-Lavalin Inc. for $15 million, claiming she never engaged in a plot to smuggle members of Moammar Gadhafi's family from Libya as the country erupted in civil war and deposed him in 2011.

Cyndy Vanier says SNC, the Montreal-based engineering and construction conglomerate, "has a good movie script" in its suit against her and two former company executives who were in charge of billions of dollars in projects in Libya.

But she's gone on the counter-attack in new pleadings filed in the court case. She says that she's being drawn into the morass of corruption allegations around SNC-Lavalin and that her legitimate work for the company led to her arrest and 18-month detention in Mexico "in one of the worst prisons on the planet," leaving her reputation in tatters.

'Plan... to get him to Canada'

SNC launched a $2-million lawsuit in mid-2013 against Vanier and former SNC construction executives Riadh Ben Aïssa and Stéphane Roy. The engineering giant alleges the trio defrauded the company in hiring Vanier in what it claims was a clandestine plot to smuggle Gadhafi family members to Mexico — counter to a United Nations travel ban.

SNC-Lavalin cited various emails, including what it claims were discussions and exchanges of photos of Moammar Gadhafi's son Saadi Gadhafi to create fake travel documents.

"The plan in the beginning, before your involvement, was to try to get him to Canada (prior to the sanctions against his travel)," states an email SNC alleges Vanier wrote to Roy. "As you know, shortly after this time period, things deteriorated very quickly and we lost the window to bring him to Canada."

SNC alleges the smuggling conspiracy was done under the auspices of two fake contracts with Vanier Consulting that purported to be for advice on handling employees in war-torn Libya.

SNC-Lavalin claims emails show Vanier conspired with two former company execs to smuggle Saadi Gadhafi to Mexico. She says the emails are fabricated and 'don't exist.' (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

"Also to cover my butt, can you send me the signature page of the mediation agreement," states another missive cited by SNC as evidence against Vanier. "I don't have to show it. But in the event we have to backtrack on this, paper trail supports intent. And the confidentiality is protected for all concerned."

Vanier, in her defence and counterclaim filed in a Montreal court last month, insists she had a legal contract with SNC when she was hired to travel to Libya in July 2011 for a "fact-finding mission," and says she was given a second contract to help the company prepare for once Libya's civil war settled down.

She suggests the emails cited in SNC's suit are themselves fake, and has long professed that SNC won't be able to prove their authenticity.

"If those emails existed, they would've been on the SNC server, they'd be on my server. They don't exist," she told the fifth estate in 2013 in one of three interviews she's given CBC. "What we have learned from this situation in Mexico, fabricating emails and communication trails through email is a very easy thing... to do.

"So, with 100 per cent certainty, they are not emails that exist on my server or that exist on the SNC server and were never part of anything that I was involved with."

'Incarceration hell' in Mexico
Vanier's arrest came in November 2011. She was in Mexico City with a group of colleagues preparing to meet with Roy, SNC-Lavalin's vice-president of finance, when she was detained. Roy was apprehended the next day in a vehicle with Vanier's colleagues, who were also arrested. He was released and quickly returned to Canada.

Mexican authorities held Vanier for 18 months, alleging she masterminded a plot to smuggle Saadi Gadhafi and his family into Mexico.

In two separate CBC News interviews from inside prison, Vanier pleaded her innocence, described being abused by police and talked of falling ill inside the tropical open-air facility. She also vowed to sue SNC once she was released, alleging she'd been swept up in the corporation's corruption scandal involving projects in Libya.

In her new pleading, Vanier also alleges she was "attacked and injured by the other inmates, placed in a coffin and waterboarded and pierced by needles by Mexican police, punched and tortured causing a heart attack and which lead to a surgical intervention to repair internal injuries."

This is the first time she has publicly claimed she was "placed in a coffin and waterboarded," following the multiple interviews, and many other communications, with CBC.

She was released in the spring of 2013 and returned to Canada.

'Kept secret'
In its suit against her, Roy and Ben Aïssa, SNC claims Vanier's involvement with the company was kept secret and was a fraud.

"That Ben Aïssa and Roy had kept secret all the ties they had with Vanier Consulting shows it was outside their respective roles within the company," SNC's lawsuit claims.

SNC is also suing former executive VP of construction Riadh Ben Aïssa. He claims the company has made him a scapegoat.

SNC alleges Roy never told anyone he'd been detained in Mexico in November 2011 alongside Vanier's co-accused until journalists began asking SNC-Lavalin questions.

Roy's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Ben Aïssa, who also filed pleadings Aug. 31, insisted Vanier was hired for legitimate fact-finding and consulting on employee matters stemming from the 2011 Libya conflict.

He denies her hiring was a secret and states that several others at SNC signed off and executed the wire transfers to Vanier Consulting. He denies any involvement in the alleged Gadhafi smuggling plot and argues he had no part in any emails exchanged.