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Case of Canadian accused in Gadhafi smuggling approaching crucial turning point

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TORONTO - The family of a Canadian woman accused of trying to smuggle the son of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi into Mexico says her case is approaching a crucial turning point.

Cynthia Vanier, who’s been sitting in a Mexico prison for more than a year, is currently waiting to make a closing statement before a judge, which will lead to a decision that either results in a continuation of her legal battle or drops the charges against her.

The mother of the 53-year-old Canadian is fervently hoping for the latter, which would secure Vanier's release and allow her to return to Canada. But she's bracing for the worst.

"I always now go for the extremes, because that seems to be how they do it," 73-year-old Betty MacDonald said from her home in Brampton, Ont.

"There's been a couple of times when we've been led to believe that she could be released momentarily, and then the decision comes down and it doesn't happen, and the fall is just too great. So we just don't go there anymore."

Vanier, originally from Mount Forest, Ont., was arrested in Mexico in November 2011 and charged in February. Since then she has been behind bars, first in Mexico City and later at a low-security facility in Chetumal, in the country's south.

The ongoing legal proceedings were meant to wrap up with Vanier's closing statement last week, said MacDonald, but were delayed until an undetermined date in the next few weeks.

"She sounded more like herself than she has sounded for the whole year and a bit. She sounded strong and confident," MacDonald said of a recent phone call with her daughter.

"She's always been strong. It's the rest of us who haven't been so strong. Cyndy's been remarkable throughout this."

Prosecutors have alleged Vanier and at least three others conspired to sneak Al-Saadi Gadhafi and members of his family into Mexico, renting an airplane to fly them to the country. They allege the attempt was foiled because pilots refused to land secretly. Gadhafi has since reportedly been living in the West African country of Niger.

Vanier has maintained her innocence throughout, and has repeatedly said her only connection to Libya was through Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin which had various lucrative projects in the Middle Eastern country.

In February 2012, the company announced it had parted ways with two executives after acknowledging that the conduct of its employees had been questioned in public. The development came after a published report said there was internal turmoil at the firm over its involvement with Vanier.

Over the past year, Vanier's case has had its highs and lows.

Her family says Canada initially wasn't informed of her incarceration until she was behind bars for four days, and they say she was held without being charged for longer than Mexico's laws allowed. Once court proceedings began, Vanier's mother said a translator wasn't always present, witnesses initially failed to show up and hearings were often put over to later dates.

The combined effect of her incarceration and grappling with a foreign judicial system has taken its toll, MacDonald said.

"Her whole immune system has been brutalized," she said.

In addition to high fevers and issues with her intestines, Vanier spent 28 days in hospital last fall, where she underwent surgery for an ovarian cyst.

Although she spent most of her time in her room, with only short walks in the hallway allowed with a guard, MacDonald said the air-conditioned, sanitary surroundings offered a welcome reprieve from her daughter's prison quarters.

Even better was the fact that Vanier's husband — who has been in Mexico throughout — was allowed to spend time in his wife's hospital room with a computer, allowing MacDonald to video chat with her daughter, who she hadn't laid eyes on since March.

December, however, brought another medical setback — Vanier came down with dengue fever (a mosquito-bourne illness), passed out in prison and was rushed to hospital just weeks after she had been discharged.

During that stay, she had to drag herself to a court hearing, said MacDonald, where she had to spend 30 minutes on her feet before her raging fever forced her to leave early.

On the whole, however, her daily life has take on somewhat of a routine, albeit a surreal one.

Vanier tries to speak with her husband and her parents on the phone every day and typically sees her spouse on all visiting days allowed by the prison.

Every family interaction involves some time spent focusing on bringing her home.

"She's definitely innocent," said MacDonald. "She deserves a break, she's been through an awful lot."

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