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Steinmetz Swiss trial: Jail for tycoon in Guinea mine corruption trial

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Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz has been given a five-year jail sentence by a court in Geneva, in a trial described as the mining sector’s biggest-ever corruption case.

The trial threw a spotlight on an often murky struggle for control of Africa’s natural resources.

Steinmetz, a former diamond magnate who also holds French citizenship, was convicted of bribing public officials in Guinea, in order to gain control of the country’s iron ore deposits.

The court also ordered him to pay compensation of 50m Swiss francs (£41m; $56m) to the state of Geneva.

“It is clear from what has been presented… that the rights were obtained through corruption and that Steinmetz co-operated with others,” to obtain them, Chief Justice Alexandra Banna told the court, according to AFP news agency.

Steinmetz, who has always denied bribery, condemned the verdict as a “big injustice”. He plans to challenge the verdict and will not go to jail pending the appeal, his lawyer said.

The Simandou mines, in south-eastern Guinea, are estimated to be the most valuable untapped iron ore deposits in the world.

The case dates back to 2006 when, according to the prosecution, the businessman, working for a company called Beny Steinmetz Resources Group (BSGR), paid bribes so that BSGR could acquire mining rights in Simandou. These had originally been held by mining giant Rio Tinto.

The trial took place in Switzerland because Mr Steinmetz lived in Geneva until 2016, and ran businesses there. Some of the bribes, the prosecution said, were paid through Swiss banks.

Key witnesses and hot shot lawyers

Steinmetz now lives in Israel, but travelled to Geneva to appear in court in person, hiring one of Geneva’s most high-profile lawyers, Marc Bonnant, to defend him.

The court found that Steinmetz, 64, and his two co-defendants had paid $8,5m (£6,2m) in bribes to a wife of Guinea’s late president Lansana Conté, who died in 2008. They were found guilty of setting up elaborate schemes to hide the link between BSGR and Conté’s fourth wife, Mamadie Touré. She had been scheduled to appear in court herself but did not turn up. She now lives in the United States.

Defence lawyer Mr Bonnant told the trial that Steinmetz had never “paid a cent” to Ms Touré, and that anyway she was never actually legally married to President Conté, and therefore under Swiss law did not qualify as a bribable public official.

What’s more, Mr Bonnant said, some of the alleged bribes were paid after President Conté’s death, which made no sense at all: “How do you bribe a ghost?” he asked the court.

Only a ‘spokesperson’

But the prosecution presented evidence which, it said, proved there was a trail of bribery and corruption stretching from Geneva, via Liechtenstein, to the Virgin Islands and back again.

Another high-flying Geneva lawyer, chief prosecutor Yves Bertossa, scored points questioning Beny Steinmetz. Since it was a fact that BSGR had acquired the mining rights for Simandou, he asked, how did Mr Steinmetz not know about the financial transactions that led to that acquisition?

Beny Steinmetz, who cut a subdued figure in court, and sometimes, speaking in French, stumbled over his responses, insisted he had only been an “adviser” or a “spokesperson” for the company that bears his name.

When confronted with details of the alleged bribery, as well as transcripts of conversations, his frequent response was: “I don’t know. I wasn’t involved and I don’t know the details.”

Mr Bertossa produced details of a conversation (recorded by the FBI in 2013) in which one of Steinmetz’s co-defendants appeared to try to persuade Ms Touré to get rid of evidence of corruption, mentioning a certain person “up there” at BSGR who made all the decisions. “Who’s ‘up there’?” asked the prosecution.

“I don’t know who is up there,” replied the businessman. “There may be God, but not me.”

Even when the prosecution produced evidence of meetings, emails, and money transfers that allegedly proved bribery had taken place, Steinmetz denied all knowledge of them, leading Mr Bertossa to scoff that it seemed highly odd that Beny Steinmetz knew nothing about the workings of a company called Beny Steinmetz Resources Group.

Beny Steinmetz is no stranger to investigations into his financial affairs. He has been questioned at least once by Israeli authorities, and was recently convicted of money laundering (in absentia) in Romania, in a case believed to be linked to the Guinea bribery scandal.

Historic trial

For observers of the trial, including non-governmental organisations that for years have followed the tangled web of BSGR’s finances, the trial has been historic.

Agathe Duparc of Swiss NGO Public Eye, which focuses on big Swiss businesses and multinationals based in Switzerland, said the case had “starkly revealed the inner workings of international corruption, against the backdrop of one of the poorest countries in the world”.

While the trial had sent a strong signal to the commodities sector, it also showed that Switzerland should tackle legal loopholes that allowed such “predatory practices,” she said.1px transparent line

In fact this very public trial took place against a backdrop of other moves aimed at cleaning up Switzerland’s financial sector, and proving the country has put some of its more questionable financial practices behind it.

In November a nationwide referendum, which would have made businesses domiciled in Switzerland legally responsible for human rights violations and environmental damage along their supply chains anywhere in the world, won the popular vote but not the required number of cantons.

Nevertheless, the Swiss government, mindful of public opinion, has introduced new legislation for Swiss businesses, requiring them to report on human rights and environmental standards and conduct due diligence when it comes to child labour and mineral sourcing from conflict areas.

At the same time, Switzerland’s Attorney General is conducting painstaking investigations into global financial scandals in which there may have been some Swiss involvement, including Malaysian state wealth fund 1MDB and Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.

Just last week Swiss prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into money laundering and embezzlement linked to Lebanon’s Central Bank.

Big implications for mining industry

This case has much wider implications than the fate of Beny Steinmetz.

When BSGR acquired the Simandou mining rights, it did not extract any iron ore. A few years later, BSGR sold the mining rights to Brazilian multinational Vale for an estimated $2.5bn. Vale has yet to show an interest in Simandou either.

Businesses and their shareholders in places far from Guinea have done extremely well trading those mining rights.

The people of Guinea themselves have got precisely nothing – and the iron ore deposits, described by Agathe Duparc as “fabulous” resources, lie untouched, the Simandou region undeveloped and lacking in investment.

It’s a story that NGOs such as Public Eye insist is repeated across Africa. In the fight for control of highly valuable mineral resources, unscrupulous businesses see ways to get rich quick, and there is little control of their financial practices.

The bribery in Guinea only came to light when, after the death of President Lansana Conté, his democratically elected successor Alpha Condé ordered an audit into the Simandou mines.

It has been seven years since the Steinmetz investigation was opened.

This trial is now likely to bring more pressure on Switzerland to prevent what Public Eye calls “predatory practices that deprive the populations of resource-rich countries of essential revenues”.

Read from source|: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55748674

 

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Ursula von der Leyen offers speedy response to Ukraine’s bid to join EU

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the civilian deaths in the Ukrainian town of Bucha showed the “cruel face” of Russia’s army and pledged to try to speed Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the European Union.

During a visit to Bucha on Friday, where forensic investigators started to exhume bodies from a mass grave, Von der Leyen looked visibly moved by what she saw in the town northwest of Kyiv where Ukrainian officials say hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces.

Russia denies targeting civilians and has called the allegations that Russian forces executed civilians in Bucha while they occupied the town a “monstrous forgery”.

As EU officials were about to arrive in Kyiv, at least 50 people were killed and many more wounded in a missile strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing the threat of a major Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.

At a news conference, Von der Leyen condemned what she called “the cynical behaviour” of those who wrote “for our children” on the weapons found near the scene.

Saying the EU could never match the sacrifice of Ukraine, Von der Leyen offered it a speedier start to its bid for bloc membership.

Handing the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a questionnaire which will form a starting point for a decision on membership, she said: “It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks.”

Zelenskiy told the same news conference he would come back with answers in a week.

“Russia will descend into economic, financial and technological decay, while Ukraine is marching towards the European future, this is what I see,” Von der Leyen said.

Earlier in Bucha, she told reporters: “The unthinkable has happened here. We have seen the cruel face of Putin’s army. We have seen the recklessness and the cold-heartedness with which they have been occupying the city.”

Von der Leyen’s trip to Kyiv was aimed at offering Zelenskiy moral and some financial support.

She pledged her support for Ukraine to “emerge from the war as a democratic country”, something, she said, the European Union and other donors would help with.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said he hoped the EU could allocate a further €500m (£420m) to Ukraine for arms purchases in a couple of days.

Zelenskiy has urged Brussels to do more to punish Russia, including banning purchases of Russian oil and gas, and has called on the EU to accept Ukraine as a full member.

Earlier, Borrell said oil sanctions were “a big elephant in the room“, with some concerns that a move to cut out Russian crude could cause a spike in prices that would be painful to European economies. He said a decision on exports would be raised on Monday in Brussels.

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Dutch officials drop case against Rijksmuseum over ‘racist’ word

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The director of the Rijksmuseum said he was “happy” as Dutch prosecutors announced they would not proceed with an investigation into complaints over a newly opened exhibition on Indonesian independence, the first of its kind in Europe.

The exhibition, Revolusi! Indonesia Independent, at the Netherlands’ national museum, has been a source a controversy since one of its curators, Bonnie Triyana, said the term “bersiap”, or stand by, would not be used in reference to the violent upheaval that followed a declaration of independence from the Dutch state.

Triyana claimed that use of the word, a battle cry for young Indonesians seeking independence, “takes on a strongly racist connotation” in the Netherlands today that “always portrays primitive, uncivilised Indonesians as perpetrators of the violence”. He said: “The team of curators has decided not to use the word bersiap as a common term referring to the violent period in Indonesia.”

In a sign of the ongoing sensitivity in Dutch society over the country’s colonial history, the comments drew a furious response in some quarters, with the head of the Federation of Dutch Indonesians, Hans Moll, accusing the Rijksmuseum of genocide denial by ignoring that “thousands of Dutch people were brutally tortured, raped and murdered by Indonesians because of their Dutch or European ethnicity”.

Complaints were made to the general prosecutor last month but Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director, said he had learned on the eve of the exhibition’s opening on Thursday that the justice ministry would not be proceeding with the case.

“I’m happy and had expected the decision that the case is not viable,” he said. “But I think it is very good that there is discussion about these concepts. It is our duty to broaden our view of history.”

Dibbits said the exhibition did make reference to the term bersiap but put it in the context of violence endured by a large range of people, and that the show explored the entire period from 1945 to 27 December 1949 when the Dutch withdrew.

He said: “The term ‘bersiap’ is used in the Netherlands by different communities that had to flee Indonesia and were repatriated during the revolution. It marks a very specific moment in time in the four and a half years of the revolution, the moment of the fall of 1945, when Indonesia has just declared itself independent and groups of insurgents executed extreme violence against several groups: Indo-Europeans, Moluccans on the Dutch side, and Chinese and others they thought were on the Dutch side. It takes place in the chaos just after the declaration of independence.

“We explain the source of the word, which started to be used in the Netherlands in the 1980s, and give it a historical context, but also speak about the violence against other groups during the revolution. We speak about violence in a much broader sense.”

Dibbits said he felt it was a “pity” that complaints had been made to the prosectors before the exhibition had opened. A second complaint, which is also not being pursued, was filed with prosecutors after Dibbits clarified before the opening that the bersiap concept would be referenced.

Dibbits said: “One claimed that not using the term was against history and the second complaint said the using of the term was against history.”

Indonesia became a member of the United Nations in 1950 and today the country counts about 270 million inhabitants across more than 17,000 islands.

The exhibition explores the personal stories of independence fighters, artists, diplomats, politicians, journalists and those seeking to maintain Dutch hold over the territory by displaying more than 200 objects, including privately owned keepsakes and paintings.

Dibbits said among the most powerful artefacts was a bundle of baby clothes made out of book covers, belonging to a young woman called Julia Nelisse. She had given birth to a daughter, Merani, in a leper colony in Pelantungan, modern-day Java, on 6 September 1947.

Corpses of fighters and civilians were regularly washing up on the river shore, which Nelisse laid out on cloth shrouds. Due to the lack of remaining cloth, she had to take the covers from books in the abandoned colony library to make into clothes. On show is a vest, a pillow and a nappy. “It is very emotional to see and brings it very close,” Dibbits said.

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Heidelberg shooting: One dead in gun attack on German students

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A lone gunman has killed one person and seriously injured three others inside a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in the south-west of Germany, before shooting himself dead.

He was an 18-year-old German student.

German police said the shooter, who was armed with two guns, had used a “long gun”, and fired shots around the amphitheatre “wildly”.

The bloodshed triggered a large operation at the university’s campus in the Neuenheimer Feld area.

Police asked people to avoid the area so rescue workers and emergency services could move around freely.

German media reported that the gunman appeared to have no religious or political motive.

Police have searched his flat in the city of Mannheim, and found a WhatsApp message he had sent shortly beforehand, in which he spoke of punishing people.

Heidelberg is a university town with about 160,000 inhabitants.

The country has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, and school shootings are rare. Anyone under 25 is required to pass a psychological evaluation before getting a gun licence.

Police initially said four victims had been wounded, with a later update confirming one had died in hospital.

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