Swiss prosecutors demand prison time for Israeli tycoon convicted of corruption

In closing statement at appeal hearing, defense lawyers for Beny Steinmetz claim accusations against their client in Guinea bribery case are ‘very weak’

Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz, right, with his lawyer, Christian Luescher, arrive at a courthouse in Geneva, Switzerland,  August 31, 2022. (Fabrice COFFRINI/ AFP)
Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz, right, with his lawyer, Christian Luescher, arrive at a courthouse in Geneva, Switzerland, August 31, 2022. (Fabrice COFFRINI/ AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — Swiss prosecutors demanded Monday that a French-Israeli businessman serve his prison sentence in a vast corruption case involving Guinea mining rights, while his defense insisted he was innocent.

In an impassioned closing statement, chief prosecutor Yves Bertossa told the Geneva appeals court that he maintained his request for Beny Steinmetz to serve five years behind bars, decrying his role in a “pact of corruption.”

The 66-year-old mining tycoon, who made his fortune in diamonds, had already been sentenced by a lower court in January 2021 to a five-year prison term and ordered to pay 50 million Swiss francs ($52 million) in compensation.

He was found guilty 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 iron ore deposits.

Earlier Monday, Steinmetz’s lawyer Daniel Kinzer slammed the prosecution’s case as “very weak,” insisting the lower court had reached “an erroneous and unjust conclusion.”

“He is innocent… There is no criminal offense,” he said in his closing statement, urging the judges to look at the facts “with fresh eyes.”

Geneva’s courthouse at the opening of Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz’s appeal against a corruption sentence linked to mining rights in Guinea, August 29, 2022. (Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP)

He lamented that his client had been blamed for actions by a range of different actors associated with different entities, insisting he had only been serving as a consultant to the Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR).

‘Nice story’

Bertossa doubled down on the picture he painted during the original trial of Steinmetz leading the charge to bribe a wife of then-Guinean president Lansana Conte and others in order to win lucrative mining rights in Simandou.

“Everyone considered him the boss,” he said.

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

Conte ordered global mining giant Rio Tinto to relinquish two concessions that were subsequently obtained by BSGR against an investment of $160 million.

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 stripped the VBG consortium, formed by BSGR and Vale, of its permit.

Illustrative: Guinean President Alpha Conde delivers a speech on August 15, 2019, during a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the WWII Allied landings in Provence, in Saint-Raphael, southern France. (Eric Gaillard/Pool Photo via AP)

The defense maintains there was nothing inappropriate about how BSGR obtained the permits, and that Rio Tinto lost half the concessions for failing to develop them.

It insisted BSGR was eager to invest in Guinea and that the project would have been hugely beneficial to the country and would have partnered in its development.

‘Pact of corruption’

But Bertossa said the sale to Vale instead showed it was only interested in “participating in the profits.”

And he rejected efforts to distance Steinmetz from an alleged “pact of corruption” with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Toure to obtain the exploration rights.

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

Kinzer insisted Steinmetz was not involved in any payments and suggested the payments that were made should, if anything, be considered as an effort at lobbying or influence peddling, which is not illegal in Guinea or in Switzerland.

He also said most of the payments were made after Conte died and Toure had left the country, meaning they could not have been made with corrupt intentions.

“Let’s be serious,” Bertossa said, pointing to numerous wiretaps of an associate of Steinmetz who is also appealing an earlier verdict that pointed to payments at Steinmetz’s behest.

“The only aim was to influence the president to obtain the mining rights.”

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