Sierra Leone court freezes Steinmetz's Octea assets

(This August 19 story corrects to clarify sourcing and month in third paragraph)

FREETOWN (Reuters) - The High Court of Sierra Leone on Wednesday granted an interim freezing order on the assets of Octea, a subsidiary of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources (BSGR) in a lawsuit over alleged environmental damage around Octea’s diamond mine.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs had requested a freezing order, saying there was a “clear and present risk” the defendants could expatriate funds in order to avoid having to pay out if the court rules against them.

A lawsuit against Octea subsidiary Koidu Limited and related companies was filed in April last year by 73 plaintiffs who are identified in the complaint as part of an association that says it is made up of individuals who live or lived within 500 metres of the mine at the relevant times. In other court documents, plaintiffs say they have suffered respiratory infections and headaches from living near the mine.

The complaint seeks damages of an unspecified amount.

Octea will appeal the judgment on Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiffs told Reuters.

High Court judge Justice S.O. Williams said: “This is just an interim order. They [Octea] will come in tomorrow and the two sides will have time to argue their own positions. At that point it’s just a matter of who is best able to make a compelling case to the court.”

A BSGR spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the freezing order.

The spokesman previously said BSGR would not comment until there was a legal ruling. Octea has described the accusations in the case as “baseless and without merit.”

Reporting by Cooper Inveen in Freetown and Helen Reid in Johannesburg; writing by Helen Reid; editing by Alessandra Prentice and Jason Neely