French-Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz walked to court for his corruption trial

Geneva (AFP) - The trial of French-Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz over corruption allegations linked to mining deals in Guinea opened in Geneva on Monday with judges rejecting his lawyer’s demands for procedural changes.

Steinmetz, who travelled from Israel to take part in the two-week trial, has denied wrongdoing in the case, which involves allegations of multi-million-dollar bribes paid to top Guinean officials – in many cases using Swiss bank accounts – to win lucrative mining rights.

The 64-year-old businessman faces charges of corrupting public officials and forging documents following a six-year inquiry.

The trial participants are separated by plexiglass barriers due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Steinmetz and his lawyer Marc Bonnant allowed to share the same space.

“We will plead his innocence,” Bonnant told AFP last week.

Swiss prosecutors accuse Steinmetz and two partners of bribing a wife of former Guinean president Lansana Conte and others in order to win mining rights in the southeastern Simandou region.

The area is thought to contain the world’s biggest untapped iron ore deposit.

The Geneva courthouse has put up plexiglass barriers to keep participants apart due to the coronavirus pandemic

Steinmetz, who is expected to testify on Tuesday, has previously dismissed the allegations as baseless and an attempt by political enemies to smear him.

Prosecutors say Steinmetz obtained the mining rights shortly before Conte died in 2008 after about $10 million (8.2 million euros) was paid in bribes over a number of years, some through Swiss bank accounts.

- ‘Pact of corruption’ -

Prosecutors claim Steinmetz and representatives in Guinea entered a “pact of corruption” with Conte and his fourth wife Mamadie Toure.

She is a key witness in the trial and is scheduled to testify on Wednesday, though it remains unclear if she will appear.

Bonnant spent much of the first morning discussing her protected status as a state witness in the United States, where she has been granted a so-called non-prosecution agreement.

He argued that this status, which protects Mamadie Toure from prosecution for her alleged role in the corruption scheme, does not exist under Swiss law and should invalidate any testimony she might give.

“This is a case of witness subornation,” he told the court.

But his objection was rejected by lead judge Alexandra Banna, who said there was nothing preventing a Swiss court from considering the testimony of a foreign state witness.

Bonnant maintains his client “never paid a cent to Ms Mamadie Toure” and says she was not married to Conte – arguing she was his mistress, meaning she could in any case not be considered a corruptible official under Swiss law.

The lawyer also claims there are serious questions around the handling of the case by Claudio Mascotto, the prosecutor initially in charge of the investigation that began in 2013.

He asked the judge to add Mascotto, who is no longer prosecuting the case, to the witness list over a secret trip he allegedly took to Israel in March 2017, which he said tainted the case.

- ‘Curse of natural resources’ -

Geraldine Viret, a spokeswoman for investigative NGO Public Eye, told AFP the case was a “sad illustration of the problematic curse of natural resources”, showing how a country as rich in resources as Guinea could continue to wallow in poverty.

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

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

In February 2019, Steinmetz reached a deal with Guinean authorities, who lifted corruption charges against him in exchange for him giving up his remaining rights to the Simandou mine.

However, Geneva has continued to press ahead with its case, which could see Steinmetz jailed for up to 10 years if convicted.