GENEVA — A Geneva court on Friday convicted Israeli diamond and minerals magnate Beny Steinmetz on charges of corruption of foreign agents and forging documents, in a trial over a bid to reap lavish iron ore resources in Guinea.
The man considered by some to be Israeli’s richest man was sentenced to five years in prison, after facing a maximum of 10 years in the case.
Steinmetz, 64, denied the charges. 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 case centred on alleged payouts of millions to a former wife of late President Lansana Conte, and exposed the shady and complex world of deal-making and cutthroat competition in the lucrative mining business.
Wearing a mask and flanked by his lawyers, Steinmetz — who has French and Israeli citizenship — calmly listened and jotted down notes as the judge, Alexandra Banna, read the facts of the case and the verdict over two hours. Attendance in the Geneva courtroom was limited due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Geneva prosecutor’s office alleged that Steinmetz and two other defendants engaged in corruption of foreign officials and falsification of documents to hide from authorities and banks the paying of bribes. Some of the funds allegedly transited through Switzerland — and the case has been investigated in Europe, Africa and the United States.
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 $10 million.
In its court filing, the prosecutor’s office said BGSR won exploration and exploitation licenses in Guinea between 2006 and 2010 in the Simandou region, and its competitor — Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto — was “deprived between July and December 2008 of concessions it had up to then held in the Simandou North blocs 1 and 2.”
Swiss transparency group Public Eye said Steinmetz employed “opaque structures” to hide the allegedly corrupt schemes that were managed from Geneva, where he lived until 2016.
The group said the case showed how tax havens can be used to conceal questionable, “even illegal” activities in countries with weak governance and regulation.
Jamey Keaten, The Associated Press