Tycoon Beny Steinmetz and two other defendants have been ordered to stand trial in connection with $10 million in bribes allegedly paid to a former wife of Conte. The payouts were allegedly part of a plot by Steinmetz's BSGR Group to squeeze out a competitor for mining rights in Guinea's southeastern Simandou region in 2005-2010.
"Beny Steinmetz denies any wrongdoing. He has done that since the beginning of the proceeding," lawyer Marc Bonnant said in an interview at his office in a leafy Geneva neighborhood. "He never sent a single dollar to any official of the Guinea regime under Lansana Conte — neither to the president nor to his wife or to his mistress or to anybody."
Bonnant said Steinmetz will appear for the trial, which isn't expected for months. If convicted, he could face two to 10 years in prison. The Geneva prosecutor's office on Monday announced the three have been charged with corruption of foreign officials and falsification of documents to hide from authorities and banks the paying of bribes. Some funds allegedly transited through Switzerland in a case that has been investigated in Europe, Africa and the United States. The other two suspects were not identified.
The case has swirled for years. Israeli authorities arrested Steinmetz in December 2016, though he was later released under restrictive conditions. BSGR, which once had a Geneva office, is now based in the English Channel island of Guernsey, and Steinmetz lives in Israel.
Officials in Guinea earlier this year reached an agreement with BSGR and came to the conclusion that Steinmetz had "never corrupted anybody," Bonnant said. The lawyer said he was "totally optimistic" that Steinmetz would be acquitted.
"I don't see how judges — independent, of quality, which is the case of the Geneva judges — could on the basis of that file find that Beny Steinmetz is guilty," Bonnant said. Global Witness, a London-based nonprofit group that battles corruption in the mining and natural resources industries, said an investigation it conducted starting in 2012 found that BSGR had agreed to pay millions of dollars to Mamadie Touré, a wife of Conte, to secure mining licenses. Conte died in 2008.
A mineral-rich but deeply impoverished country, Guinea has long suffered from corruption while trying to exploit its natural resources. The Simandou region is one of the world's largest sources of iron ore.
In a rare 2013 interview with the Israeli news site YNet, Steinmetz called allegations of corruption by BSGR "a joke."