Israeli tycoon faces bribery charges in Geneva over deals with Guinea

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Geneva (AFP)

After a long international investigation, the Franco-Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz is on trial Monday in Geneva for allegations of corruption linked to mining agreements in Guinea.

The trial, which is set to open at 9:00 a.m. (8:00 a.m. GMT) at the Geneva Criminal Court, will look into allegations of multi-million dollar bribes paid to senior Guinean officials to secure lucrative mining rights.

The 64-year-old billionaire businessman, who traveled from Israel to participate in the two-week trial, denies any wrongdoing.

“We will plead his innocence,” his lawyer Marc Bonnant told AFP.

After a six-year investigation in several countries, a Geneva prosecutor indicted Steinmetz in August 2019 with bribery of public officials and forgery of documents.

Swiss prosecutors accuse him and two partners of bribing a wife of former Guinean President Lansana Conte, and others, to obtain mining rights in the southeastern region of Simandou.

The area is estimated to contain the world’s largest untapped deposit of iron ore.

Steinmetz previously dismissed the allegations against him as being baseless and an attempt by political enemies to smear him.

Prosecutors charge around $ 10 million (€ 8.2 million) in bribes, in part via Swiss bank accounts, and say Steinmetz obtained the mining rights shortly before Conte’s death in 2008.

– ‘Corruption pact’ –

Prosecutors say Steinmetz and officials in Guinea made a “corruption pact” with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Touré.

She is a key witness in the trial and is expected to testify on January 13, but it’s still unclear if she will come.

According to the investigative NGO Public Eye, she lives in the United States where she was granted protected status as a state witness.

Steinmetz’s attorney Bonnant said the absence of Touré and other key witnesses would be grounds for postponing the trial.

He maintains that his client “never paid a cent to Mme Mamadie Touré” and also asserts that she was not in fact Conte’s wife, but only a mistress, which means that she could not. in no case be considered a corruptible official under Swiss law.

The lawyer also said that Claudio Mascotto, the prosecutor initially in charge of the investigation opened in 2013, had asked about the handling of the case.

While an appeal to challenge Mascotto from the case was rejected by the court last year, he was replaced by Geneva Canton Attorney General Yves Bertossa, alongside prosecutor Caroline Babel-Casutt.

– “Curse of natural resources” –

Public Eye spokeswoman Geraldine Viret told AFP that the case was “a sad illustration of the problematic natural resource curse”, showing how a country as rich in natural resources as Guinea could continue to survive. wallow in poverty.

Conte’s military dictatorship ordered global mining giant Rio Tinto in 2008 to give up two concessions to BSGR for around $ 170 million in 2008.

Barely 18 months later, BSGR sold 51% of its stake in the concession to Brazilian mining giant Vale for $ 2.5 billion.

“The profit was colossal, around double the Guinean state budget at the time,” Viret said.

But in 2013, Guinea’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Condé, launched a review of the permits awarded under Conte and subsequently stripped the VBG consortium formed by BSGR and Vale of its permit.

In February 2019, Steinmetz struck a deal with Guinean authorities, who dropped corruption charges against him in exchange for relinquishing his remaining rights to the Simandou mine.

However, Geneva continued to push his case forward, which could see Steinmetz jailed for up to 10 years if found guilty.

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