A Swiss investigation into how a company controlled by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz came to own one of Africa’s most valuable mining assets widened as Geneva prosecutors traveled to Guinea to interview key witnesses.
Prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, who questioned Steinmetz in October 2013, headed a team that’s been interviewing witnesses in Conakry, the West African nation’s capital, this week, said Henri Della Casa, a spokesman for the Geneva Prosecutors.
The prosecutors are in Guinea as part of an investigation involving Steinmetz’s BSG Resources Ltd., said Ibrahima Beavogui, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Justice. Beavogui declined to comment on those sought for interviews.
The interviews are the latest phase of an almost two-year investigation, involving at least four nations, into how BSGR gained control in 2008 of half of one of the world’s richest iron-ore deposits. It later sold 51 percent of the asset, obtained at no cost, in a $2.5 billion deal with Brazilian mining company Vale SA, the world’s biggest exporter of the steelmaking ingredient.
Steinmetz is just a party to the proceedings, his Geneva lawyer Marc Bonnant said by phone on Friday.
“As far as Beny Steinmetz is concerned, he has nothing to fear,” said Bonnant, who declined an invitation to attend the interviews in Conakry. “The more the prosecutor investigates, the more it’s fine.”
Guernsey-incorporated BSGR said it was “pleased” that the Swiss investigation was progressing after delays caused by the Ebola crisis in Guinea.
“The more transparent this internationally recognized legal process is the better from BSGR’s perspective as we continue along our path of proving that our assets in Guinea were illegally expropriated,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
The Swiss are probing whether foreign officials were bribed to gain control of the Simandou iron-ore licenses. BSGR has denied any wrongdoing. Guinea revoked BSGR’s rights to the Simandou project last year, citing evidence of corruption in the selection process.
Steinmetz and Sandra Merloni-Horemans, a director of BSGR and Onyx Financial Advisors UK, which provides consulting services to BSGR, were interviewed in Geneva in October 2013. Steinmetz’s Geneva home and private jet were searched by Swiss police two months earlier following a request by the government of Guinea.
Onyx Financial has said previously it’s cooperating fully with the Swiss authorities following an earlier request from a Conakry court on behalf of the Guinea government. Onyx Financial is based in London and has offices in Geneva, Amsterdam, Johannesburg and Rome, according to its website.
In April 2013, a U.S. grand jury investigation began looking into claims that a man linked to BSGR, Frederic Cilins, paid bribes to the wife of a former president of Guinea in return for mining concessions in the country. Cilins was sentenced to two years in prison for interfering with the grand jury investigation.
Steinmetz is looking forward to clearing his name, probably in September, when he is called by the Geneva prosecutor, his lawyer Bonnant said.
“Steinmetz wants to be heard,” he said. “We will produce expert views, showing internal and external audits made by major firms that not a cent came out of any of the accounts of the groups to go to an illicit purpose.”