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West Africa: Swiss Put Billionaire On Trial, Alleging Mining Corruption in Guinea

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Swiss prosecutors allege that the Israeli billionaire and business associates bribed a wife of the former Guinean president to obtain lucrative mining rights.

Lawyers, bankers and professional advisers in Europe and the United States enabled corruption in one of the world’s poorest countries, Swiss officials allege in a highly-anticipated criminal case that opens today.

Prosecutors in Geneva allege that Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz forged documents and masterminded a “corruption pact” over five years to pay millions of dollars in bribes to obtain lucrative mining rights in Guinea, West Africa. Steinmetz and his company, BSG Resources, bribed Mamadie Touré, a wife of Guinea’s then-president, Lansana Conte, to develop the Simandou iron ore mine, prosecutors said in an indictment provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Prosecutors have also charged former Steinmetz adviser Frederic Cilins, and Sandra Merloni-Horemans, the director of an advisory firm that worked for Steinmetz’s companies. Both allegedly forged documents and participated in the bribery scheme, prosecutors said.

Wells Fargo Bank in Florida and Philadelphia, JPMorgan in London, attorneys in Manhattan and Florida, a Swiss wealth manager and the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca provided services that enabled the corruption, according to the indictment. The lawyers, banks and advisers are discussed in the indictment but have not been charged.

“The Simandou case is of enormous importance, as it is an extremely rare occurrence of company officials being held to account for classic bribery methods,” said Daniel Balint-Kurti, a London-based freelance journalist who spent years investigating the case. “Skilled practitioners of the legal, financial and PR arts are central to enabling corrupt deals,” Balint-Kurti said.

The prosecutor who opened the case in 2019 said he would seek prison terms of up to ten years, according to Reuters.

Steinmetz has previously denied wrongdoing. “The charges have no basis in fact or in law,” Marc Bonnant, Steinmetz’s attorney, said last month. “Beny Steinmetz never paid a cent to Mme. Mamadie Toure,” said Bonnant, who also contested prosecutors’ allegations that she was married to President Conte at the time of the alleged payments.

Cilin’s attorney, Jean-Marc Carnicé, told ICIJ that his client “did not corrupt any public official and did not use any forged document or did not forge any document.” Cilins will “plead full acquittal,” Carnicé said.

Merloni-Horeman, through a lawyer, declined to answer questions. “My client is not a public personality and does not wish to have a name in the media,” said attorney Corinne Corminboeuf Harari.

Prosecutors allege that Steinmetz conspired with others between 2005 and 2012 to promise and grant “advantages” to Conte and Touré as part of a “corruption pact.” Touré was then Conte’s “fourth wife and a very influential person in his entourage” who “intervened directly and personally in BSGR’s Guinea project,” according to prosecutors. Touré is not a defendant in the criminal case and has previously helped related investigations in the United States. She has been summoned to appear as a witness on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported.

Touré was paid approximately $10 million through a web of offshore companies and foreign bank accounts in Israel, the Bahamas, Switzerland and the United States, prosecutors said. In one 2011 transaction, prosecutors allege, Touré received half a million dollars in a Wells Fargo account in Miami. Global Witness, a nonprofit investigative organization, previously revealed that Touré owned multiple properties in Jacksonville, Florida.

Steinmetz’s company BSGR also used bank accounts with JPMorgan in London and with Société Générale in Paris, among others, to allegedly pay bribes. Wells Fargo told ICIJ that it was not a party to the legal case in Switzerland. “Wells Fargo follows applicable laws and regulations, has robust policies in place to adhere with legal obligations, and appropriately cooperates with legal authorities,” a spokesperson said. The other banks declined to comment or did not respond.

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