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Firm at center of Canadian political scandal heads to trial

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Ottawa (AFP)

A judge ruled Wednesday there was suffient evidence in a corruption case to try SNC-Lavalin, the Canadian engineering giant at the center of a political scandal that has rocked Prime Justin Trudeau's government.

The company spent months openly lobbying the federal government for an out-of-court settlement of fraud and bribery charges linked to its dealings in Libya.

But allegations that Trudeau's aides brought improper pressure on his attorney general to settle the case spilled out in an angry public split that tarnished Trudeau's golden boy image.

The court's decision followed an extended preliminary hearing in which evidence in the case was tested. The specifics of the ruling are under a publication ban.

SNC-Lavalin is expected to return to court on June 7 to indicate their preference for a trial by jury or by judge.

Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin was charged in 2015 with paying Can$47 million in bribes between 2001 and 2011 to secure contracts in Libya during the rule of former strongman Moamer Kadhafi.

It was also accused of defrauding the Libyan government of Can$130 million.

The charges relate to the world's largest irrigation scheme -- the Great Man-Made River Project -- to provide fresh water to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte.

A conviction, the company argued, risked crippling its business and putting thousands out of work as it would be banned from bidding on lucrative Canadian government contracts for 10 years.

Trudeau came under fire in February when his former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould accused him and his inner circle of pressuring prosecutors to settle the case -- which she had refused to do.

The prime minister has steadfastly denied the allegations.

After months of Liberal infighting and bruising parliamentary justice committee hearings into the matter, Trudeau kicked Wilson-Raybould and his ex-budget minister, Jane Philpott out of cabinet in April.

He said the trust between the pair and the rest of the Liberal team had been broken.

Now five months before October elections, the Liberals are trailing the opposition Tories by six percentage points, according to an average of recent polls.

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, meanwhile, announced on Monday that they will seek re-election as independent MPs.

SNC-Lavalin is expected to return to court on June 7 to indicate their preference for a trial by jury or by judge.

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