GENEVA (Reuters) – Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz went on trial in a Geneva court on Monday on corruption and forgery charges linked to mining concessions in the West African nation of Guinea.
Steinmetz was indicted in August 2019 by a Geneva prosecutor who accused him and two aides of paying or having $10 million in bribes paid to obtain exploration permits for some of the world’s richest iron-ore deposits.
Steinmetz and his aides deny the charges. If convicted he could face up to 10 years in prison.
Steinmetz’s lawyer, Marc Bonnant, told the three-judge panel that his client should not face charges.
The 64-year-old, a former Geneva resident who moved back to Israel in 2016, is attending the two-week trial in person.
Swiss prosecutors allege Steinmetz and his aides won the rights to mine the lucrative iron-ore vein in Guinea’s remote Simandou mountain range by bribing Mamadie Toure, one of the wives of the former Guinean President Lansana Conté, between 2006 and 2010, and that they forged documents to cover it up.
Mamadie Toure, believed to reside in the United States, is called as a witness this week, ahead of the verdict due on Jan. 22. Reuters attempted to contact Toure through social media, but she could not immediately be reached for comment.
“Beny Steinmetz never paid a cent to Mme. Mamadie Toure. Mamadie Toure was not the wife of the president (Lansana Conte) and she is not a public agent and therefore cannot be corrupted,” Bonnant told Reuters last month.
Development of Simandou has been hindered by years of legal wrangling involving several big mining companies.
As part of international efforts to improve transparency, Guinea’s government under President Alpha Conde, elected in 2010, launched a review of mining contracts signed before 2011.
The review panel investigated how BSGR had obtained rights to the Simandou deposit in 2008 and, after levelling corruption allegations, the government stripped the company of its rights to Simandou and a smaller deposit.
BSGR has always maintained it did nothing wrong. It walked away from the Simandou project as part of a settlement announced in February 2019 with the Guinean government, in which both parties agreed to drop outstanding legal action.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Carmel Crimmins)