A lawyer for Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz said his client will appear next month at a Swiss court to fight graft charges linked to mining contracts in Guinea.
Steinmetz and two aides were ordered last year to stand trial in Geneva on charges of corruption and forgery over allegations they paid $10 million in bribes to a wife of Guinea’s late president Lansana Conte. The payouts were allegedly part of a plot by Steinmetz’s BSGR Group to squeeze out a competitor for mining rights in the West African country’s southeastern Simandou region in 2005-2010.
“There are two charges, corruption and forgery. Both are categorically contested. The charges have no basis in fact or in law,” Marc Bonnant, a Geneva-based attorney representing Steinmetz, told Reuters on Friday.
Bonnant denied Steinmetz signed any forged documents and questioned whether Conte, who died in 2008, was in fact married to Mamadie Toure at the time of the alleged payments.
“Beny Steinmetz never paid a cent to Mme. Mamadie Toure. Mamadie Toure was not the wife of the president [Lansana Conte] and she is not a public agent and therefore cannot be corrupted,” the lawyer said.
The lawyer said Steinmetz will attend the trial, noting the Israeli billionaire attended the pre-trial hearings.
A source told Reuters the trial is scheduled to be held between January 11 and 22, after the start of the proceedings was delayed earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If convicted, Steinmetz could face two to 10 years in prison.
Last year, the Geneva prosecutor’s office announced Steinmetz and two other defendants had been charged with corruption of foreign officials and falsification of documents to hide from authorities and banks the paying of bribes. Some funds allegedly transited through Switzerland in a case that has been investigated in Europe, Africa and the United States. The other two suspects were not identified.
The case has swirled for years. Israeli authorities arrested Steinmetz in December 2016, though he was later released under restrictive conditions. BSGR, which once had a Geneva office, is now based in the English Channel island of Guernsey, and Steinmetz lives in Israel.
Global Witness, a London-based nonprofit group that battles corruption in the mining and natural resources industries, said an investigation it conducted starting in 2012 found that BSGR had agreed to pay millions of dollars to Mamadie Toure to secure mining licenses.
A mineral-rich but deeply impoverished country, Guinea has long suffered from corruption while trying to exploit its natural resources. The Simandou region is one of the world’s largest sources of iron ore.
In a rare 2013 interview with the Israeli news site Ynet, Steinmetz called allegations of corruption by BSGR “a joke.”