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Swiss court hands diamond magnate five-year prison sentence

Steinmetz (foreground) entering the Geneva court premises with his lawyer. Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz has been handed a five-year sentence and a CHF50 million (almost $56.5 million) fine over suspected corrupt business practices in Guinea.  

This content was published on January 22, 2021 - 17:52
Reuters/Keystone-SDA/SWI swissinfo.ch/ilj

Steinmetz was alleged to have paid bribes to secure mining rights in the African country at a fraction of their fair value. He had denied the charges. The trial has been one of the mining world’s most high-profile legal disputes. 

Yves Bertossa, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, succeeded in getting the verdict he wanted. Steinmetz will appeal the decision. The Geneva court also pronounced guilty verdicts on two other defendants linked to the corruption scandal: An African middleman was handed a three-year prison sentence and a CHF5 million fine while the administrative director of BSGR received a two-year suspended sentence and a CHF50,000 fine.

In August 2019, prosecutors in Geneva charged Steinmetz with making illegal payments to government officials and of falsifying documents. Prosecutors say Steinmetz and other associates “promised in 2005 and then paid or had bribes paid to one of the wives of former Guinean President Lansana Conte” to have mining rights allocated to the company Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR). 

BSGR later sold the Guinea mining rights to another company for a huge profit. The 64-year-old commodities trading magnate, who made his fortune dealing diamonds, had denied the charges. Prosecutors say millions of francs in ill-gotten gains from the deal have passed through Swiss banks. Steinmetz lived in Geneva until 2016. 

Highly unusual  

It is highly unusual for Swiss courts to prosecute foreign nationals for alleged crimes committed outside Switzerland. The campaigning NGO Public Eye said other Swiss entities and individuals had played a role in the alleged corruption. 

"This case shows how tax havens can make it easier to cover up illegitimate or illegal activities in weakly governed and regulated countries," the group previously stated. "The role of advisors and lawyers in setting up or managing offshore companies and trusts is also questionable. These actors systematically hide behind professional secrecy." 

Last November Swiss voters rejected an attempt to hold multinational companies legally liable in Switzerland for criminal acts and human rights violations abroad. 

The Swiss government has also resisted pressure from NGOs to impose tighter binding regulations on the commodities trading sector. It has instead opted to recommend guidelines that the industry is expected to self-regulate. 


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