This is part 2 of a 4-part series.
It is easy to imagine uber-rich businessmen climbing the red carpeted steps that lead up to Beny Steinmetz’s hotel suite. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Swiss city’s old town, Hotel Métropole seems untouched by time. Some find its decor outdated. Others are paying for an identity that has changed little since the hotel opened in 1854. At the top of the stairs, a butler welcomes the sparse stream of masked guests staying at the hotel today, 21 January.
Not so long ago, bankers and investors booked rooms here because of its relative privacy. People would cross paths and recognise each other, but pretend otherwise. More than anything else, people would scrutinise one another, watching the procession of the powerful. But in the Covid-19 pandemic era, the lobby remains depressingly empty and the restaurant deserted at lunchtime in the capital of bank secrecy. A cheery waiter tries to keep up the illusion of normalcy, serving coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice deserving of a five-star hotel. I am waiting for Steinmetz to arrive and liven things up, as he agreed to meet with me over a meal. In Europe in 2021, a lunch date is a big deal.
A caged lion
The Franco-Israeli businessman’s first-floor hotel suite is not ostentatious. A row of windows offers a view of the lake and the room is furnished with a corner sofa and a coffee table. Steinmetz sits down on the couch, propping his feet up on the table. Casually dressed in a partly unbuttoned shirt, the tanned mining tycoon is in good shape for a 64-year-old. He asks me how my train journey from Paris was. He is more of a private jet kind of guy, himself.
Steinmetz has been living in Geneva for two weeks, simply as a matter of convenience: Hotel Métropole is located just a few hundred metres from the courthouse where his trial opened 10 days prior to our interview. In courtroom no. 3, the diamond dealer pushed back against charges that he masterminded a “corruption pact” to obtain mining licences in Guinea between 2006 and 2010.
After asserting that the court testimonies against him were false, he reiterated that he was merely an “adviser” to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) and thereby had no decision-making authority.
Above him, like a shield extending from Guernsey all the way to the Cayman Islands, is an intricate web of companies to which his name is attached, but which he maintains he does not run. According to sources involved in the Panama Papers leak, there are 131 such companies and a foundation, Balda, headquartered in Liechtenstein, of which he is only a beneficiary.
Seated in the first row of an empty courtroom, the former billionaire (his net worth fell below the $1bn threshold in 2020, according to Forbes) never deviated from his story. At the top of the pyramid, there “may be God”, but not him. Flanked by three Swiss lawyers, including his lead counsel, the silver-haired Marc Bonnant, Steinmetz listened attentively and took in the proceedings eight hours each day.
On 15 January, the first blow fell: the prosecutor, Yves Bertossa, requested a five-year prison sentence for the businessman. On the 18th, the case was adjourned. With the verdict scheduled to be delivered the day after our interview, Steinmetz did not yet know that he would be convicted.
He reminds me of a caged lion. Despite his qualms about journalists, he agreed to tell me his side of the story.
Could Steinmetz have lived a less secretive existence? When he moved to Belgium in 1977, the young man, born in Netanya (a city 30 kilometres north of Tel Aviv) in 1956, had just completed three years of service in the Israeli army. He trained in artillery, but did not see any action. During his leave, he split his time between the family home and the diamond-cutting factory owned by his father, Rubin, where his older brothers, Daniel and Eldad, worked.
Once his military service was over, Steinmetz wanted a change of scenery. Raised in the diamond business, he decided on Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world. “My father trusted me and let me dive right in,” he says.
Conversations in Yiddish and shop backrooms
Rubin himself got his start in Belgium, where he lived from 1928 to 1936. A fervent Zionist, he left his deeply religious family in Poland at the age of 16 to move to Germany and, subsequently, Antwerp.
In 1977, Rubin set out to bolster Israel’s diamond industry, which he had helped develop…