A billionaire diamond magnate is to go on trial in Switzerland over allegations of corruption linked to a major mining deal in Guinea.
Beny Steinmetz, who has Israeli and French nationality, has always denied his company paid multi-million dollar bribes to obtain iron ore mining exploration permits in southern Guinea back in 2008. His lawyer says he will travel from Israel to Geneva to “plead his innocence”. If convicted he could face up to 10 years in prison. It is rare for major corruption cases to go to trial in Switzerland, where the 64-year-old is reported to be a former resident, prosecutors spent six years investigating a deal that gave Mr Steinmetz’s company, BSG Resources (BSGR), rights to mine a large area of the mountainous region of Simandou. It contains one of the world’s biggest untapped reserves of iron ore.
They accuse Mr Steinmetz of winning the deal by bribing one of the four wives of the former Guinean President Lansana Conté, and of allegedly forging documents to cover it up. Mr Steinmetz secured the rights in exchange for an investment of around $160 million (£118 million), but he then sold half of them on to Brazilian multinational mining company, Vale, 18 months later for $2.5 billion, netting a massive profit. At the time it was referred to as a ‘jackpot’ deal in the financial press. But it also raised questions about why the initial rights were granted so cheaply. Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecom billionaire and anti-corruption campaigner, asked at the time: “Are the Guineans who did that deal idiots, or criminals, or both?” Mr Steinmetz has always insisted he did nothing wrong. In a rare interview in 2012 he told the Financial Times that “people don’t like success” and it was normal to pursue “opportunities in an aggressive way”.
Ahead of the trial, his lawyer Marc Bonnant insisted that he had “never paid a cent” to Mamadie Touré, the widow of former President Conté, whom the bribes allegedly went to. Although she has been summoned to testify, it is unclear if she will attend. Guinea’s government stripped BSGR of its mining rights in 2014, citing evidence of corruption, which the company denied, despite its vast natural resources, Guinea remains one of the poorest countries on the African continent. It has yet to profit fully from the iron ore reserves of the Simandou mountains.