GENEVA (Reuters) – Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz on Tuesday denied any role in corruption or forgery linked to mining rights his company secured in Guinea, describing himself as the owner and company ambassador but not the boss.
Steinmetz was indicted in August 2019 by a Geneva prosecutor who accused him and two aides of paying, or having paid, $10 million in bribes to obtain exploration permits for some of the world’s richest iron-ore deposits in the remote Simandou mountains of Guinea.
Steinmetz and his aides deny the charges. If convicted he could face up to 10 years in prison.
At his court appearance on Tuesday, Steinmetz, wearing a dark blue suit and tie, repeatedly referred to himself as a “spokesman” or “ambassador” for Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR).
Steinmetz, who made his name in diamond mining and trading, told the judges he only gave advice and had never presented himself as the boss or taken decisions on projects.
“My name was 10 on a scale of 10, seen like a white diamond,” he said, speaking in French, when asked why the company carried his name if he was not running it.
BSGR said it could not comment on the proceedings.
Swiss prosecutors allege Steinmetz and his aides won the mining rights by bribing Mamadie Toure, who they say was one of the wives of the former Guinean President Lansana Conté, between 2006 and 2010, and that they forged documents to cover it up.
“I met Mamadie Toure, the woman or girl, once in my life for only five minutes. We have not spoken,” Steinmetz said. His lawyer has said Toure was not married to Conte and could not be considered a public official.
Toure, who has been summoned as a witness, lives in Florida after reaching a non-prosecution agreement with U.S. authorities, both Steinmetz’s defence team and Geneva prosecutor Yves Bertossa told the court. U.S. courts have dealt with separate legal cases concerning the rights to mining in Simandou.
Reuters has attempted to contact Toure through social media, but she could not immediately be reached for comment.
The size of the iron deposit at Simandou meant it had the potential to transform Guinea’s economy but the legal wrangles, together with the difficulty and cost of access have ensured it has never been developed.
“It’s really a tragedy. If the project had been carried out, it would have quadrupled the GDP of Guinea. Now 10 years later, there is nothing,” Steinmetz told the court.
The 64-year-old, a former Geneva resident who moved back to Israel in 2016, has in the past been ranked as a billionaire and one of Israel’s wealthiest men. Asked by the court to estimate his personal fortune, he said it was $50-80 million.
The trial, which opened on Monday, is expected to last two weeks.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Barbara Lewis)