Israeli diamond tycoon appeals corruption sentence in Switzerland

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Beny Steinmetz appeals a five-year prison term and $51.5m fine over bribing public officials in Guinea.

Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz returns to a Geneva court on Monday to appeal his conviction on charges of corrupting foreign public officials and forging documents, a case linked to his firm’s bid to reap lavish iron ore resources in the West African country of Guinea.

The man considered by some to be Israel’s richest man was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 50 million Swiss francs ($51.5m) in the lower court’s ruling in January 2021. Two other defendants received lesser penalties.

The case centred on alleged payouts of millions to a former wife of late Guinean President Lansana Conte, and exposed the shady and complex world of deal-making and cut-throat competition in the lucrative mining business.

Steinmetz will be without high-profile Geneva lawyer Marc Bonnant, who is no longer representing the billionaire. Bonnant had previously argued that Steinmetz had not given “a single dollar” to any official of the Guinea regime under Conte.

Backers of the Israeli tycoon insist that the lower court did not get a full understanding of the facts of the case, and believe that the court wanted to set an example that Switzerland – which has had a reputation over the years for secretive financial dealings – can hold financial kingpins to account when necessary.

‘Landmark ruling’

After the verdict, Swiss transparency group Public Eye hailed a “landmark ruling” that showed the court could see through a “slick” legal defence.

Steinmetz, 66, denied the charges and has been free pending the appeal.

The Geneva prosecutor’s office alleged that Steinmetz, a former resident of Geneva, and the two other defendants engaged in corruption of foreign officials and falsification of documents to hide the payment of bribes from authorities and banks.

Some of the funds allegedly transited through Switzerland – and the case has been investigated in Europe, Africa and the United States.

Marc Bonnant (R), lawyer for  Steinmetz (L), answers questions after the verdict in Geneva [File: Martial Trezzini/EPA]

The plot, dating to the mid-2000s, involved Steinmetz’s BSGR Group squeezing out a rival for mining rights for vast iron ore deposits in Guinea’s southeastern Simandou region.

The prosecutor’s office said Steinmetz, starting in 2005, crafted a pact of corruption with Conte, who ruled the West African country from 1984 until his death in 2008, and his fourth wife, Mamadie Toure, involving the payment of nearly $10m. She has worked with prosecutors in the US in connection with the case.

In its court filing, the prosecutor’s office said BSGR won exploration licences in Guinea between 2006 and 2010 in the Simandou region, while its competitor – Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto – was stripped of mining rights on two sites that it had held in the region.

Steinmetz’s defence team says a mountain range in the area holds some of the world’s largest untapped deposits of iron ore, and the standoff has stifled any hopes to reap them – and offer a potential windfall for an impoverished country.

They say BSGR was the first company to study the feasibility of mining iron ore in the area.

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