Friday 1 June 2012

The private trials of Cynthia Vanier

June 1. On Thursday, May 24, 2012, Cynthia Vanier, the Canadian in prison in Chetumal, Mexico, lost a legal judgment that might have seen her released from her prison cell and on her way home to Canada.

Ms. Vanier is facing charges that she plotted to smuggle Saadi Gaddafi to Mexico while she was under contract to the engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, which had close ties to Mr. Gaddafi.

The same judge who ruled to charge Ms. Vanier back in February reasserted his original decision, letting the charges stand.

The nature of the appeal, and the specifics of the decision, are still somewhat unclear. However, La politica, as a result of extensive communication with many people close to the trial, can give an approximate summary of what happened, and what the consequences might be.

It was in February 2012 that Ms. Vanier was formally charged with falsification of documents, human trafficking, and participation in organized crime. Her family and defense team have argued from the beginning that her human rights had been violated by Mexican authorities, and that this alone should be sufficient cause for her release.

The argument appears to have been that Ms. Vanier had her rights violated under the Vienna Declaration of June 25, 1993. Mexico is one of the 171 countries that adopted the Declaration by consensus.

Ms. Vanier has alleged that directly after her detention – which has always been reported as being on November 10, 2011, but which she says in her statement was November 9, 2011 – she faced a number of abuses.

She was yelled at and denied toilet access. She was denied access to a telephone. During transport she was violently elbowed in the kidney by a female officer, which resulted in an injury that has required ongoing medical attention. She was denied access to a translator, and repeatedly mocked and photographed by officers with cell phones.

After being transferred to a facility in Mexico City she was by her own account “pushed into a cement hole”. When finally allowed to visit the toilet there was blood in her urine as a result of the injury to her kidney. Repeated requests to see a doctor were denied, and she was left in a cell with fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day.

Canadian officials claim they did not receive notification until November 13. During her detention Ms. Vanier was ill, throwing up in her cell, and her clothes were soaked in urine and blood. She had no access to a lawyer, though she did finally see a doctor, who gave her something for her pain.

Her time in the detention centre in Mexico City, or “Arraigo”, was initially set for 40 days, and then extended to 80 days. Physical conditions were poor: five to eight people per cell, constant audio and video surveillance, cockroaches in food, fluorescent lights on 24x7, no access to writing materials.

If possible, the social conditions were worse: of the 30 women in detention in December, 2011, 26 were attended by doctors due to rape and severe physical bearings. Male prisoners were also seen with evidence of beatings.

Ms. Vanier, who suffered a mild myocardial infarction while in detention, was given access to a cardiologist and an echo cardiogram, though tests were done with multiple observers in humiliating circumstances. Ms. Vanier’s blood pressure was elevated, and she stated that her hands and fingers turned blue when she stood and walked.

The Mexican judicial system - limited visibility

Was this the evidence that was ruled on May 24? We aren’t sure. One source has told La politica that the judge did not rule on the specifics of the submission, and that this was simply a procedural issue which the judge in Chetumal had to remedy by reviewing his decision. He did that, and nothing changed.

It is also our understanding that this decision did not focus on the validity of the evidence claiming to come from the “Anonymous” Internet hacking group, which included damning emails that implicate Ms. Vanier and others in the alleged plot. This evidence, as well as testimony from the convicted felon Christian Eduardo Esquino Nuñez, is central to the government’s case against Ms. Vanier.

The material from Anonymous, without which the prosecutor’s job would be made considerably more difficult, may not be admissible in court for two important reasons: it has no identifiable source that would allow it to be certified, and it was almost certainly obtained illegally.

“You need to follow all legal procedures,” John Ackerman, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told La politica in an interview.

Specifically, Prof. Ackerman has confirmed to La politica that evidence obtained illegally is not admissible in court. Also, the source of evidence has to be confirmed, which is unlikely to happen in the case of the Anonymous emails.

“The evidence needs to be certified,” says Prof. Ackerman. “The Mexicans are very rigorous about this.”

However, Prof. Ackerman also says that in Mexico the moral character of a witness is less of an issue than in courts in Canada and the United States, which suggests that testimony from Esquino Nuñez – hardly a reliable character – may be allowed to stand.

“In principal, in Mexico it is not as acceptable to look into the moral character of a witness,” says Prof. Ackerman. “Of course, it is used, but it is not as common a practice – testimonies are taken more on face value.”

On May 23rd in Los Angeles La politica met with Greg Gillispie, the San Diego-based aircraft broker who used Mr. Esquino as a source of aircraft for Ms. Vanier’s SNC-Lavalin-sponsored work in North Africa. Mr. Gillispie’s business partner, Gabby de Cueto, was arrested shortly after Ms. Vanier in Mexico City and is in the same prison in Chetumal.

During our meeting Mr. Gillispie was cautiously optimistic. He had heard that the appellate judge, who was in Mexico City, was familiar with Esquino Nuñez’s criminal past and therefore might be suspicious of the validity of the government’s case. However, we now know that the decision was ultimately made by the original judge in Chetumal, and seems to have been a rather narrow procedural ruling which, at most, was based primarily on the human rights issue.

Mr. Gillispie has been very active in trying to clear his name. He has made himself easily available to La politica, and has even contacted the RCMP, who said they would only act upon a request from US authorities. The US authorities, however, don’t appear to put much faith in the Mexican evidence, because they have not questioned Mr. Gillispie and, as far as La politica knows, have no intention of doing so.

The Canadian government has been contacted by La politica on two occasions with regard to Ms. Vanier’s detention in Mexico. Citing privacy issues, the government has been reluctant to offer information that, in La politica’s opinion, should be public knowledge, such as the name of the presiding judge.

“Ms. Vanier has been charged with very serious crimes,” John Babcock, spokesperson for Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, wrote to La politica back in April. “Canadian officials are in touch with her and her husband to provide consular assistance. Canada will continue to liaise with Mexican authorities on Ms. Vanier's behalf to request a transparent trial and ensure her medical needs are being met.”

We have since spoken to Mr. Babcock on the phone a few times and, though friendly and accessible, he has been unable to shed more light on Ms. Vanier’s legal status in Mexico.

However, it seems that the consulate in Cancun has been providing active support to Ms. Vanier.

In fact, sources have told La politica that consular support has been adequate. For example, consular officials apparently arrived in Chetumal on Wednesday the 23rd with travel documents prepared in case Ms. Vanier were to be released.

News of this, as well as the fact that Ms. Vanier had been provided with a translator, caused the family some optimism that she might be set free and on her way home on Thursday the 24th. There was even preparation for a family member to travel from abroad for a reunion.

On Thursday the 24th Ms. Vanier was taken to the court house in orange prison garb with handcuffs and shackles.  The shackles, however, were too short for her to climb the steps to the 2nd floor, so she had to go up one step at a time in a sitting position. Once there, they discovered she was in the wrong court house.  So back down she went, again having to sit and shift from stair to stair. 

Once in the correct building, with the temperature in the high 30s, Ms. Vanier stood for three hours during the legal proceeding, only to find that the initial charges were to stand.

Now that this process has concluded, there doesn’t seem to be any specific date set for future legal action. Mr. Gillispie, relying on his own sources, has told La politica that nothing will likely happen until after the election on July 1st – or even after December, 2012, when the new president officially takes office.

This is possible, given how highly politicized his process has become. It is also possible from a purely legal perspective.

“Mexico is working on constitutional reforms to expedite trials” says Prof. Ackerman. “It is in process now, and still being discussed. The code of criminal procedures has not passed yet.”

This is all part of a major overhaul of the Mexican judicial system, in which oral trials could be possible and which would place more emphasis on the presumption of innocence. At present all trials are document-based, and involve only lawyers and judges.

The present legal structure could result in an extended stay for Ms. Vanier.

“The whole process could literally take forever,” says Prof. Ackerman. “There are people who get out after having been in jail for seven or eight years. It is very common to languish in jail while waiting for a final decision.”

Prof. Ackerman further stated that there could be a “dizzying amount” of procedural decisions.

Let’s be very clear: this is not a transparent trial. The proceedings are not open to the public. The evidence is held close by lawyers and judges, and the names of the presiding judges themselves are unknown. We have spoken to many, many people closely connected to this trial, and have found it almost impossible to provide specifics that we can report on.

At some point, one would expect the government of Canada to make a formal statement as to what they expect from the Mexican judicial system. This would not be a form of interference in another country’s affairs, but a simple observation that, in effect, a country cannot detain a person indefinitely and subject them to an arbitrary and secretive legal process.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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  1. John Ackerman, whom you cite in your report, is in my judgment a questionable source to quote with respect to the Vanier case - or any other legal matter.

    Mr. Ackerman is not an attorney, either under Mexican law or U.S. law, at least according to his published biography. While Ackerman holds a Ph.D. from the University of California -- in political sociology -- that doesn't make him a legal authority of any type. Perhaps only in Mexico could one call oneself a "legal scholar" when in fact one has no recognized legal training. It's rather like a paramedic referring to himself as a physician. Ackerman has done a masterful job in passing himself off to the U.S. press as someone with legal training and knowledge, for which he deserves an A+. Undoubtedly, many presume he's an attorney.

    Ackerman is heavily involved in political commentary here in Mexico, for causes which he favors. He's also one of the primary sponsors of a complaint which was lodged in late 2011 by a group of so-called "Mexican intellectuals," seeking the indictment of president Felipe Calderon for "war crimes" before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. That factor perhaps speaks more loudly than anything about Mr. Ackerman's alleged expertise in legal matters.

    It's disappointing that you have chose to rely upon John Ackerman as a source for the very important (and controversial) topic of the Vanier case. His commentary certainly does not add credibility to La Politica's arguments. I dismiss much of what Ackerman says as the opinion of a self-promoter masquerading as something he's not - a "legal expert."

  2. Interesting points. There was a lot more detailed information from my interview with Prof. Ackerman with regard to some of the changes to Mexican law that might be coming down the pipe, but that didn't really fit into the story. Prof. Ackerman has advised Mexico's Supreme Court and also the Chamber of Deputies. His politics are definitely left of centre, but that was not the basis for the interview. For more information on Prof. Ackerman his Wiki bio is here < > and his bio at the Institute for Legal Research at UNAM is here < >.

    Edward, one question: You are "disappointed" in me using Prof. Ackerman as a source, but are there inaccuracies in his comments? Is there something untrue in the post? If so, let me know, if not, don't shoot the messenger - Prof. Ackermans' comments were not political as far as I could see.