‘There may be God up there, but not me,’ says Beny Steinmetz
On the second day of his trial for corruption and forgery charges, Beny Steinmetz spent seven hours answering questions at the Geneva Criminal Court. He had one objective: to not give the impression of being the one who makes the decisions of his company, BSGR.
This time, Beny Steinmetz did not heed the instructions. While the second day of hearings in his trial only began yesterday morning, the Franco-Israeli businessman took advantage of a recess to catch his breath. Without wearing his black mask, despite the health protocol imposed by the Geneva Criminal Court, he smiles and chats with his colleagues. Alongside his lawyer Marc Bonnant, the diamond magnate climbs a few steps to admire the drawings of the courtroom sketch artist, who is in charge of documenting the trial since photography is prohibited.
Although Steinmetz is an avid art collector, it seems unlikely that a drawing depicting this case that began on 12 January will ever decorate the living room of his Israeli home. He has been in front of the presiding judge since 9am. In French sometimes mixed with English expressions, he explains, specifies and repeats the following statement: “I was an adviser of Beny Steinmetz Group Resources [BSGR] and the Balda foundation [the owner of the group], of which I am also the beneficiary. I gave advice, but I wasn’t the one making the decisions and dealing with administrative and management details.”
“I didn’t know about it”
In other words, if Steinmetz asserts that his advice could have been heard by BSGR “staff”, he himself would have had “no legal or de facto power.” Was he aware of the transfer of 17.65% of BSGR Guinea’s capital to Pentler, headed by Frédéric Cilins (his co-defendant in this lawsuit), Michael Noy and Avraham Lev Ran? “I wasn’t there and I didn’t take part in it.” What was Pentler’s role in Guinea? “I was not consulted on that. I was not aware of the details.” Was he then involved in BSGR’s decision to buy back the famous 17.65% for $30m (including bonus)? “I was involved in the discussion, but the decision was up to BSGR, of which I am only an advisor.”
The hearing continues. Was he aware of the assertions made by the Guinean businessman Aboubacar Bah, who was claiming money from BSGR in connection with the Simandou contract? “I have heard of extortion attempts, but these are common in Africa.” Was Pentler in charge of dealing with the problems posed by Mr. Bah? “I don’t know him. I wasn’t involved and I don’t know the details.” Was he aware of the relationship between Pentler and Mamadie Touré, one of the wives of former President Lansana Conté, who was accused of taking bribes to help win mining contracts? “Ms. Touré told a lot of lies. As to any payments she allegedly received, I don’t know anything.”
“Alpha Condé stopped everything at George Soros’ request”
The presiding judge then presented Steinmetz with the transcript of a conversation between Cilins and Touré, recorded by the FBI in Florida in 2013. In it, Cillins (sentenced to two years in prison in the US in 2014) tries to convince Touré to erase the evidence of the alleged corruption pact linked to Guinea. He also mentions a person from BSGR, the only one “who decides”, “up there”. Question from the judge: “Who is the one who decides up there, Mr. Steinmetz?” Answer: “You have to ask Mr. Cilins, who is present here. Personally, I don’t know who is up there. There may be God, but not me. […] If Cilins went to Florida, it was not on my orders.”
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Calm and prepared by his lawyers – who make sure that he remains focused and doesn’t get carried away – Steinmetz is trying to restore BSGR’s image, tarnished by seven years of legal proceedings. “In mining projects, it’s the company that takes risks. […] Especially in Africa, you need investors who will put up the money. They can win or lose, but the country always wins. […] In Guinea, if the Simandou project had gone ahead, the state would have quadrupled its GDP. […] But everything was stopped by the current president, Alpha Condé, … at George Soros’ request.”
“BSGR was very professional and its project was intelligent and of high quality. Before us, Rio Tinto [the company that previously held the Simandou mining contracts] had done nothing for fifteen years. In fact, they didn’t want to exploit anything: they had a big operation in Australia and didn’t want Guinean iron to compete with them,” Steinmetz says, adding: “The Guinean government set up a fake technical committee and forged documents to throw us out. I was even told that some of the signatures on the documents were obtained under duress. “And who would be behind all this?” asks the prosecutor maliciously. Steinmetz dodges the question, telling the judge that he does not want to make any assumptions. However, the name Soros, a long-time enemy of the Franco-Israeli, hovers once again in the courtroom.
“The truth is that I am only an advisor to BSGR”
As the afternoon draws to a close, prosecutor Yves Bertossa decides to readdress the central question of the day (which has in fact been at the heart of the judicial process for several years): is “Beny”, as many call him, the secret leader of the BSGR group, suspected of corruption in Guinea? Quoting a testimony from Asher Avidan, a senior director of BSGR, the judge said that Steinmetz is described as “the real boss” of the company, for whom it is “important to say” that he is “an advisor” for “tax reasons”. To which the defendant replies: “It’s a figure of speech. I’m not the boss and I don’t make business decisions.”
Bertossa does not allow himself to be taken in: “In an internal BSGR report from 2008, the same Asher Avidan says that you are the owner of the group!” Once again, Steinmetz retaliates : “It’s a way of speaking, but it’s legally false. In business, especially in Africa, names are important. Asher Avidan probably wanted to take advantage of mine. […] When I go to Africa, I don’t go into detail myself. But the important thing is the truth. And the truth is that I am only an adviser to BSGR.” His French may be hesitant, but his discourse is not. Eight hours (including two recesses) later, Steinmetz’s trial is coming to an end.
Then it was up to Cilins (the last of the accused to be questioned) and the witnesses, who took the stand on Wednesday 13 January: they will undoubtedly be questioned about the role, actual or not, of the main accused. While it is hoped that Touré, who lives in the US (where she has made an agreement with the authorities), will make an appearance, Conté’s wife should not, barring surprises, be seen at court. Beneath the snowflakes, in a cold far away from the mines of Guinea, Steinmetz walks back to his hotel near the shores of Lake Geneva. Visibly relieved to have finished, he talks about the day with his colleagues. The trial is far from over, but he has the smile of one who has been able to maintain his line of defence.