GENEVA (Reuters) – A Swiss criminal court will rule on Friday whether Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz is guilty of corruption and forgery charges in one of the mining world’s most high-profile legal disputes.
The battle for control of the world’s richest untapped deposits of iron ore, buried in the remote Simandou mountain range of Guinea, has triggered probes and litigation around the world and thwarted efforts to extract the lucrative commodity.
Steinmetz, who made his name in the diamond business before turning to Simandou, was indicted in August 2019 by a Geneva prosecutor.
The prosecutor accused Steinmetz and two aides of paying, or having paid, $10 million in bribes to obtain exploration permits for Simandou and of forging documents to cover it up through a web of shell companies and bank accounts. They deny the charges.
Yves Bertossa, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, is seeking a five-year prison term for Steinmetz and 50 million Swiss francs ($56.33 million) in compensation. The aides, a Frenchman and Belgian woman, face lesser penalties.
A three-judge tribunal is set to issue its ruling in Geneva after 1400 GMT.
Swiss prosecutors allege Steinmetz and his aides won the mining rights by bribing Mamadie Touré, 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.
Steinmetz denies that he ever paid any money to Touré and his lawyer has said she had no real influence in Guinea.
Touré, who resides in Florida, could not be reached for comment. She was one of a dozen people called to appear at the trial. None of them attended.
Central to Steinmetz’s defence is his claim that he was not involved in the day-to-day running of Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR). He described himself as the owner and company ambassador but not the boss of the group that employs some 100,000.
“I am not BSGR,” the 64-year-old, who lived in Geneva until 2016, told the court. “I didn’t know Guinea and went there for the first time in February/March 2008.”
Bertossa rejected the defence argument and said the case represented “a classic textbook case of corruption”.
“Today we have neither anyone responsible nor guilty, it’s the theory of magic corruption. There is no corrupter, no corrupted,” he told the court.
The Geneva trial, held in an 18th-century courtroom stacked with 250 files of relevant documents, is one of many legal cases that have arisen from Simandou.
In February 2019, BSGR said it would walk away from the project as part of a settlement with the Guinean government, in which both parties agreed to drop outstanding legal action.
Rio Tinto, which held the original exploration rights to Simandou, has said it is pressing ahead with the project. In an update this week, it said it was starting work, including on roadworks, and was carrying out technical studies.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Carmel Crimmins and Barbara Lewis)