By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz rejects Swiss corruption charges against him in connection with winning mining contracts in Guinea and will appear in court to fight them, his Geneva lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.
Geneva prosecutors’ indictment of the diamond trader and two others this week revives a headache that appeared to have eased this year when Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) walked away from a giant iron ore project in the West African nation.
BSGR abandoned the Simandou project as part of a settlement announced in February ending a long-running dispute, the company and Guinea’s government said at the time.
Claudio Mascotto, a Geneva prosecutor, said on Monday he was seeking prison terms of two to 10 years for Steinmetz and two associates over the alleged payment of $10 million (8.3 million pounds) in bribes for mining licences between 2005 and 2010.
“His defence is simple, he absolutely contests all the charges against him,” Marc Bonnant, a prominent Geneva lawyer representing Steinmetz, told Reuters.
“They have no basis in the facts or in law,” he said.
Frederic Cilins, a French former adviser to BSGR who was sentenced to two years in prison by a New York federal court in 2014 for obstructing a criminal probe linked to a bribery investigation in Guinea, is one of the two co-defendants.
“My client completely and categorically rejects all the charges. I will plead for an acquittal,” his Geneva lawyer, Jean-Marc Carnice, told Reuters, declining to comment further.
Calls to the lawyer of a Belgian woman who has been indicted were not immediately returned.
A trial is not expected for months.
The prosecutor accused the three of “having promised in 2005 and then paid or had bribes paid to one of the wives of former Guinean President Lansana Conte”, so as to have mining rights in Simandou allocated to BSGR.
“Just as the Guinea government has backtracked on its claims, here too it will be proven that there was no wrongdoing in Steinmetz’s activities,” the billionaire’s spokesman said on Tuesday.
“It should be emphasised that the investigation was launched in Switzerland at the request of the Guinea government, and under international arbitration Guinea has retracted its claims, which is why these are baseless charges.”
Guinea’s mines minister, Abdoulaye Magassouba, told Reuters on Monday that the government was not involved in trying to prosecute Steinmetz, given February’s agreement.
“We have signed specific agreements with Steinmetz and we will fully respect the terms of the agreement. It is not possible for a hostile action against BSGR to come from the government,” he said.
Administrators for BSGR, a private firm registered in Guernsey, said in March 2018 they would work to return the mining firm to solvency and pay creditors in full after it voluntarily entered administration to protect it from legal disputes related to the project in Guinea.
The Conakry government is no longer party to the Geneva criminal case, but Mascotto pressed ahead after six years of investigation and multiple requests abroad for legal assistance.
The Geneva daily Le Temps reported he had sought assistance from Guinea, Israel and Ukraine to trace alleged financial flows and identify account owners.
Steinmetz, a former resident of Geneva who moved back to Israel in 2016, attended questioning sessions by the prosecutor, Bonnant said.
“He has given all the indications he could and all the documents to which he had access,” Bonnant said. “And of course he will attend the trial.”
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer in Jerusalem and Saliou Samb in Conakry; Editing by Michael Shields and Mark Potter)