Ex-Premier Sues Canada for Libel In a Gripping Trial

It's not quite O.J. Still, some say the $36.5 million libel trial pitting former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney against the federal government is destined to be the "mother" of all Canadian civil trials.

The spectacle will include a parade of Canadian officials, including current Justice Minister Allan Rock and possibly even Prime Minister Jean Chrtien appearing as witnesses. It may also bring courtroom cameos from the likes of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President George Bush testifying to Mr. Mulroney's character.

"This country has never seen a trial like this," Simon Chester, a Toronto libel specialist, told Maclean's magazine recently. "Most countries haven't seen a trial like this."

Key letter to Switzerland

On the surface, the issues seem simple enough. The trial, which begins today in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal, centers around whether a Sept. 29, 1995 letter sent by Canadian Justice officials to Swiss authorities libeled Mulroney. The letter asked the Swiss for help in investigating "criminal activity" by Mulroney.

The Justice Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were checking into unsubstantiated reports that Mulroney was paid $3.6 million in kickbacks for his help in arranging the $1.3-billion 1988 sale of 34 Airbus Industrie jets to Air Canada. But the letter became public.

Portions of the letter appeared Nov. 18 in the Toronto-based Financial Post. More news reports followed. Mulroney came out swinging the same day, holding a press conference announcing his suit.

Mulroney's lawyers will contend the government embarked on a reckless investigation of spurious charges that smeared his name in the process. They may also contend that Mr. Chrtien, a political rival, was out to get Mulroney, a Progressive Conservative, after the last national election in 1993.

Reporters to be queried

Justice lawyers, however, are expected to grill several reporters in a bid to squeeze information about their sources to support the theory that Mulroney himself is behind the leaked document. Justice officials say hundreds of similar requests have gone out without being leaked.

So far, Mulroney has reportedly spent close to $1 million on legal expenses. He sits on the boards of 11 corporations and claims his reputation will be marred if the scandal sticks. The Canadian government, meanwhile, is described as having spent more than $500,000 on a "dream team" of legal experts.

The government, too, has a lot to lose. The suit could damage Chrtien's Liberal Party's chances in a federal election this year if it appears the government was irresponsible or out to get Mulroney, as he contends.

Swirling beyond the question of libel, of course, are key unanswered questions of importance to the nation: Would the former prime minister really take kickbacks? Would he plant the story in the press to deflect attention from the RCMP investigation? Would Chrtien's government set out to get Mulroney after trouncing his conservative party in the last election?

Whether Canadians will see the proceedings on television is uncertain. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is still fighting to have its cameras allowed into the courtroom.

The trial could last up to three months. TV coverage or not, the country is expected to be riveted.

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