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Diamond magnate appeals Swiss bribery verdict

·3-min read

French-Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz was back in court in Switzerland on Monday to appeal his conviction in what has been described as the mining sector's biggest-ever corruption case.

The 66-year-old businessman was convicted in January 2021 of setting up a complex financial web to pay bribes to ensure his company could obtain permits in Guinea's southeastern Simandou region, which is estimated to contain the world's biggest untapped deposits of iron ore.

He was sentenced by a Geneva court to five years in prison and also ordered to pay 50 million Swiss francs ($52 million) in compensation.

Steinmetz, wearing a dark blue suit, arrived at the court house as a free man. He has not begun serving his sentence, since he was issued a legal free-passage guarantee to attend the first trial, and was permitted to leave Switzerland after it ended.

He has been issued another free-passage for the appeal, which is expected to last until September 7, with the verdict set to fall later.

Steinmetz maintained his innocence throughout the original trial and immediately appealed against the ruling, decrying it as a "big injustice".

He changed his legal team for the appeal, and his new lead lawyer Daniel Kinzer presented an impassioned defence on Monday's first day, detailing a long line of alleged missteps, errors and misunderstandings in the trial.

- 'No bribes' -

"I am confident the appeals court can be convinced," he told AFP in an email before the hearings, adding a deeper look at the case revealed "a totally different picture than the one painted by the first verdict".

"We expect that the tribunal recognises that Beny Steinmetz did not bribe anyone."

During the first trial, Swiss prosecutors convinced the court that Steinmetz and two partners had bribed a wife of the then Guinean president Lansana Conte and others in order to win lucrative mining rights in Simandou.

The prosecutors said Steinmetz obtained the rights shortly before Conte died in 2008 after about $10 million was paid in bribes over a number of years.

Conte's military dictatorship ordered global mining giant Rio Tinto to relinquish two concessions which were subsequently granted to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) for around $170 million in 2008.

Just 18 months later, BSGR sold 51 percent of its stake in the concession to Brazilian mining giant Vale for $2.5 billion.

But in 2013, Guinea's first democratically-elected president Alpha Conde launched a review of permits allotted under Conte and later stripped the VBG consortium formed by BSGR and Vale of its permit.

- 'Pact of corruption' -

To secure the initial deal, prosecutors claimed Steinmetz and representatives in Guinea entered a "pact of corruption" with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Toure.

Toure, who has admitted to having received payments, has protected status in the United States as a state witness.

Before the court, Kinzer decried that much of the prosecutor's case relied on her testimony, despite no insight into the opaque US deal and that the defence had never been given access to her.

He asked for all her testimony to be deemed inadmissable.

"One cannot legitimately rely on prosecution witnesses who have secret agreements with law enforcement, whose testimony has not been fully disclosed and who were not cross-examined on trial," he told AFP.

His co-counsel Christian Luscher highlighted significant concerns around the handling of the case by Claudio Mascotto, the prosecutor initially in charge of the investigation, suggesting he had struck a deal with another witness in the case, and asking that he be questioned in court.

Steinmetz's team also rejects the narrative that corruption was behind the transfer of mining rights from Rio Tinto to BSGR, insisting that Rio Tinto had lost half of its concessions for failing to develop them, in line with Guinea's mining laws.

"The mining rights were withdrawn from a competitor because it was hoarding them and then awarded to BSGR on the basis of a solid and convincing business case, with no need to bribe a public official," Kinzer told AFP.

nl/rjm/lth