By Douglas Gillison
A Paris court on Thursday threw out a libel case brought by the billionaire Israeli diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz against a satirical newspaper, which had tied to him to an alleged coup plot to protect mining rights in the Republic of Guinea.
The development marked a second defeat since December for Steinmetz’s legal efforts to combat critical reporting about him in the news media and elsewhere.
With his African mineral transactions the subject of a bribery probe by the US Justice Department, Steinmetz has for two years been at the center of a legal and public relations maelstrom.
Britain’s Information Commissioner last month rejected Steinmetz’s attempt to use local data privacy laws to force the environmental transparency organization Global Witness to hand over unspecified “personal data” about him and three associates.
Global Witness has been foremost in accusing Steinmetz’s company of corruption in its dealings in Guinea.
The Paris newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, had in September 2013 published extraordinary claims according to which French and US spy agencies believed Steinmetz was planning a coup in that country.
The newspaper said Steinmetz hoped to stop a hostile new government from revoking his rights to multi-billion-dollar mineral deposits there.
Victor Nassar, described as a longtime Israeli security consultant for Steinmetz, had allegedly set up residence in South Africa to form a militia for this end, the newspaper said.
Steinmetz and Nassar sued Le Canard in October 2013. In January of 2014, Steinmetz released a letter from France’s Directorate-General for External Security, or DGSE, in which the agency said it was not the source of a document used by the author of the article. The newspaper had cited the French intelligence agency as the source of the story.
Spokesmen for Steinmetz did not say whether Steinmetz’s company, BSG Resources Ltd., had sought similar confirmation from the Central Intelligence Agency, another purported source of the article’s information. The agency declined to comment at the time.
On purely formal grounds, the 17th correctional chamber of the Paris tribunal on Thursday dismissed the claims by Steinmetz and Nassar, saying they had failed to identify which part of the article was libelous.
“The court did not consider the substance of the matter and the witnesses who were present were not heard,” Louis-Marie Horeau, chief editor at Le Canard, told 100Reporters in an email. “It is a simple question of law that the judges decided.”
“The law requires that plaintiffs specify precisely which passages of the impugned article contain defamation and which ‘precise fact’ damages their honor,” said Horeau.
“The court found that this essential condition had not been met, putting an end to the matter, barring a contrary decision from the Court of Appeal,” he wrote.
Lawyers for Mr. Steinmetz have vowed to appeal, he added.
Representatives for Steinmetz said Friday that they had no comment. Steinmetz has adamantly denied wrongdoing, saying instead that he has been the victim of a smear campaign.
A federal grand jury in New York is also investigating Steinmetz’s mining company, BSGR, over its 2008 acquisition of lucrative iron ore mining rights in Guinea. One former associate, Frédéric Cilins, was convicted in March of attempting to destroy evidence.
The new Guinean government revoked the mineral licenses after an ad hoc investigation found that they had been awarded through bribery.
BSGR has begun international arbitration proceedings to seek “full compensation” for what it describes as Guinea’s “improper activities” in revoking the licenses.
Top photo: Editor-in-Chief of French satirical weekly ‘Canard Enchaîne’ Louis-Marie Horeaur./Photo: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images