A criminal court in Geneva on Monday began hearing charges of corruption and document forgery against the French-Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz over the securing of lucrative mining deals in the West African country of Guinea, the latest chapter in a yearslong international investigation.
Swiss prosecutors have accused Mr. Steinmetz, a mining and real estate magnate, and two others of paying $10 million in bribes to a wife of Lansana Conté, the president of Guinea who died in 2008, to win access to iron ore deposits in the country’s Simandou region.
They also accused Mr. Steinmetz of forging fake documents to cover the bribes, which they say started in 2006 and continued until 2012, and of funneling the money through Switzerland.
Mr. Steinmetz, 64, who was indicted in 2019 and traveled from Israel to appear at the trial, denied the accusations through his lawyer, Marc Bonnant.
“My client has never forged documents, he never asked anyone to forge documents,” Mr. Bonnant said in a phone interview.
He added that Mr. Steinmetz, one of the richest people in Israel, had never paid or instructed any money be sent to Mamadie Touré, who prosecutors have said was married to Mr. Conté.
The trial, a rare example of Switzerland bringing charges against a foreign national, follows a seven-year investigation by authorities in Guinea, Europe and the United States. Public Eye, a watchdog for Swiss companies, called the trial “historic” and the largest corruption case in the mining sector.
“This is a great first in Switzerland and shows the determination of Swiss justice,” said Agathe Duparc, a senior researcher for Public Eye. Corruption is usually hard to prove, but in this case, she said, the paper trail had been precisely reconstructed thanks to two key witnesses, Ms. Touré and Ofer Kerzner, a former associate of Mr. Steinmetz.
Claudio Mascotto, a Swiss prosecutor who began the investigation in 2013, said last year that he would seek a sentence of two to 10 years in prison if Mr. Steinmetz were convicted. A verdict is expected on Jan 22, the court has said.
Mr. Steinmetz’s business dealings have been investigated in several other countries, including the United States, Romania and Israel. His legal problems began, after his group, BSG Resources, beat out the Australian mining firm Rio Tinto in 2008 for half the exploration rights to mine iron ore in Guinea, which has some of the world’s richest deposits. The company sold half of that share to the Brazilian mining giant Vale in a $2.5 billion deal.
In 2014, the Guinean government, after a review launched by the democratically-elected president Alpha Condé, accused Mr. Steinmetz’s company of corruption, paying millions through a representative to Ms. Touré.
The U.S. Department of Justice also investigated Mr. Steinmetz’s companies for potential corruption, saying that some of the alleged payments were sent through American banks. He was briefly detained and questioned by Israeli authorities in 2016 and 2017.
Mr. Steinmetz’s company struck a deal with Guinea’s government in 2019 to relinquish the project but the group has remained locked in legal disputes with Vale and Rio Tinto, who have claimed they lost money on the venture.
Ms. Duparc, of Public Eye, called for “a public trial” into the practices of mining groups as a whole. In a statement, the group said the allegations against BSG Resources demonstrated how “tax havens can be used to conceal questionable — or even illegal — activities in countries with weak governance and regulation.”
Mr. Steinmetz’s family has connections to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law. In 2017, The New York Times reported that a company investing money for Mr. Steinmetz’s brother and longtime business partner, Daniel, along with his son Raz, had partnered with Kushner Companies on dozens of apartment buildings around Manhattan and Jersey City.
Civil society organizations have lobbied for proposals that would add accountability for businesses headquartered in Switzerland for their actions abroad. One such proposal, which would have held companies based in Switzerland liable for human rights violations and environmental damage committed by their subsidiaries abroad, failed in a referendum last year.
Source: New York Times