Hike sentence

Israeli diamond tycoon Steinmetz back in Switzerland to appeal bribery conviction and more

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — French-Israeli diamond tycoon Beny Steinmetz will return to a Swiss court on Monday to appeal a conviction for corruption linked to mining rights in Guinea.

A Geneva court convicted the 66-year-old businessman in January 2021 of setting up a complex financial network to pay bribes to ensure his business could obtain permits in an area believed to contain largest untapped iron ore deposits in the world.

He was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay 50 million Swiss francs ($52 million) in compensation to the canton of Geneva.

Steinmetz maintained his innocence throughout the trial and immediately appealed the decision, calling it a “gross injustice”.

Two of his alleged co-conspirators, who received shorter prison terms, are also appealing.

Steinmetz has changed his legal and communications team for the appeal, and they are preparing to argue that the lower court did not fully hear his arguments and misunderstood the situation.

The first trial had painted Steinmetz in a way that “does not correspond at all to reality,” his spokesman Marc Comina said in a document detailing the diamond tycoon’s case.

Far from being corrupt, Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) had legitimately obtained the mining rights in question, and had endeavored, in difficult and complex circumstances, to mount an operation which would have benefited the national interests of Guinea, indicates the document.

French-Israeli diamond tycoon Beny Steinmetz (L) arrives with his lawyers for his trial in Geneva on January 11, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Corruption pact

Swiss prosecutors painted a much different picture in the first trial, which was the culmination of a lengthy international investigation that began in Switzerland in 2013.

They accused Steinmetz and two associates of bribing a wife of then Guinean President Lansana Conte and others in order to obtain mining rights in the southeastern region of Simandou.

Prosecutors said Steinmetz obtained the rights shortly before Conte’s death in 2008 after around $10 million was paid in bribes over several years, some through Swiss bank accounts.

Conte’s military dictatorship ordered global mining giant Rio Tinto to give up two concessions to BSGR for around $170 million in 2008.

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

But in 2013, Guinea’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Condé, launched a review of the permits awarded under Conte and then stripped the VBG consortium formed by BSGR and Vale of its permit.

A woman shops at Kaporo market in Conakry, Guinea, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/ Sunday Alamba)

To secure the original deal, prosecutors claimed that Steinmetz and representatives in Guinea entered into a “corruption pact” with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Touré.

Touré, who admitted receiving payments, has protected status in the United States as a state witness.

She and a number of other key witnesses in the case did not appear at the first trial, and it was unclear whether they would attend the appeal.

Totally wrong

Steinmetz, who lived in Geneva during the years the bribes were allegedly paid, continues to maintain that the corruption allegations are “totally false”, according to the document released by his team.

He insisted that Rio Tinto had lost the rights to half of its concessions at Simandou due to its failure to develop them, in accordance with Guinean mining laws, and that BSGR subsequently legitimately bid for and obtained the rights.

There was “nothing illegal or arbitrary” about that decision, according to the document.

He also argued that the trial court misunderstood the nature of the deal with Vale and that BSGR wanted to create a lasting partnership and business in Guinea.

“BSGR never intended to leave Guinea once the partnership with Vale was signed,” he said.

“If it had not been driven out of the country, BSGR would still be present in Guinea today and would be a major player in the economic development of the country.

Steinmetz, who obtained a legal guarantee of free passage to participate in the first trial, left Switzerland without serving his sentence.

He will be back in court in Geneva from Monday to plead his case after being given another free passage, with the appeal hearing set to last until September 7. The verdict will be given at a later date.

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Israeli diamond tycoon Steinmetz returns to Switzerland to appeal corruption conviction

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