Mining tycoon Benny Steinmetz was sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 but is appealing the decision – Copyright AFP Wojtek RADWANSKI
A French-Israeli businessman who has appealed his conviction in one of the most high-profile mining corruption cases on Tuesday maintained his innocence and hoped a Swiss court would give him justice.
Mining tycoon Benny Steinmetz was found guilty in 2021 of setting up a complex financial network to pay bribes so his company could secure permits in Guinea’s southeastern Simandu region, which is estimated to contain the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposits.
“I am innocent,” the 66-year-old told AFP after seven days of intense hearings.
The businessman who made his fortune in diamonds has been sentenced by a Geneva court to five years in prison and 50 million Swiss francs ($52 million) in damages.
But during the appeals court hearing, he insisted that the verdict was deeply unfair, and his lawyers argued that the prosecution’s case was “very weak.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Steinmetz said shortly before the court closed, telling judges he was “devastated” to hear him portrayed.
Steinmetz, who lives in Israel and has been granted free passage to attend the trial, is free to leave Switzerland but will be asked to return to serve his sentence if he loses.
He did not serve a prison sentence due to the appeals process and it is expected that the judges will take weeks or even months to reach their verdict.
Prosecutors doubled down on the picture painted during the original trial, with Steinmetz leading the charge of bribing the wife of then Guinean President Lansana Conte and others to gain lucrative mining rights to Simandou.
Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) obtained the rights, which were taken from mining giant Rio Tinto, shortly before Conte’s death in 2008, after some $10 million in bribes were allegedly paid through various channels over the years.
BSGR obtained the rights in exchange for a $160 million investment, but after 18 months sold 51 percent of its share in the concession to Vale of Brazil for $2.5 billion.
In 2013, Guinean President Alpha Conde revised the permits given to Conte and withdrew the permit from the VBG consortium formed by BSGR and Vale.
Prosecutors allege that Steinmetz and his accomplices entered into a “corruption pact” with Conte and his fourth wife, Mamady Toure, to gain intelligence rights, an allegation he vehemently denies.
Toure, who admitted to receiving the payments, has protected status in the United States as a government witness.
Steinmetz’s lawyer has repeatedly complained that the defense has no access to Toura or information about her U.S. deal, and denounced Tuesday that the prosecutor’s case relies heavily on “an untrustworthy witness.”
The defense argued that there was nothing inappropriate in the way BSGR obtained the permits and that Rio Tinto lost half of the concessions for failing to develop them.