French-Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz went on trial in Geneva on Monday over allegations of corruption linked to mining deals in Guinea, after a drawn-out international investigation.
Steinmetz, who travelled from Israel to take part in the two-week trial, has denied wrongdoing in the case, which involves allegations of multi-million-dollar bribes paid to top Guinean officials to win lucrative mining rights.
The 64-year-old businessman, who did not comment to journalists gathered outside the court, faces charges of corrupting public officials and forging documents following a six-year inquiry.
The trial participants are separated by plexiglass barriers because of the pandemic, with only Steinmetz and his lawyer Marc Bonnant allowed to share the same space.
“We will plead his innocence,” Bonnant told AFP last week.
Swiss prosecutors accuse him and two partners of bribing a wife of former Guinean president Lansana Conte and others to win mining rights in the southeastern Simandou region.
The area is thought to contain the world’s biggest untapped iron ore deposit.
Steinmetz has previously dismissed the allegations as baseless and an attempt by political enemies to smear him.
Prosecutors say Steinmetz obtained the mining rights shortly before Conte died in 2008 after about $10 million (8.2 million euros) was paid in bribes, some through Swiss bank accounts.
– ‘Pact of corruption’ –
Prosecutors claim Steinmetz and representatives in Guinea entered a “pact of corruption” with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Toure.
She is a key witness in the trial and is scheduled to testify on January 13, though it remains unclear if she will come.
According to the investigative NGO Public Eye she lives in the United States where she has obtained protected status as a state witness.
Before the trial, Steinmetz’s lawyer Bonnant said the absence of Toure and other key witnesses would be grounds for postponement.
He maintains his client “never paid a cent to Ms Mamadie Toure” and says she was not married to Conte, she was his mistress, meaning she could not be considered a corruptible official under Swiss law.
– ‘Curse of natural resources’ –
Public Eye spokeswoman Geraldine Viret told AFP the case was a “sad illustration of the problematic curse of natural resources”, showing how a country as rich in resources as Guinea could continue to wallow in poverty.
Conte’s military dictatorship ordered global mining giant Rio Tinto to relinquish two concessions to BSGR for around $170 million in 2008.
Just 18 months later, BSGR sold 51 percent of its stake in the concession to Brazilian mining giant Vale for $2.5 billion.
“The profit was colossal, about twice Guinea’s state budget at the time,” Viret said.
But in 2013, Guinea’s first democratically elected president Alpha Conde launched a review of permits allotted under Conte and later stripped the VBG consortium formed by BSGR and Vale of its permit.
In February 2019, Steinmetz reached a deal with Guinean authorities, who lifted corruption charges against him in exchange for him giving up his remaining rights to the Simandou mine.
However, Geneva has continued to press ahead with its case, which could see Steinmetz jailed for up to 10 years if convicted.
Corruption trial of Israeli magnate opens in Switzerland The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ France 24.