Sierra Leone court lifts Octea asset freeze after complaint thrown out

DAKAR (Reuters) - The High Court of Sierra Leone in Freetown has dismissed one of several legal complaints against Octea, a subsidiary of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources (BSGR), on jurisdictional grounds, a court ruling shows.

A lawsuit against Octea subsidiary Koidu Limited and related companies was filed in February by 15 individuals who say that their property, livelihoods or health suffered because of operations at a diamond mine in eastern Sierra Leone, according to the complaint.

The High Court put a temporary freeze on the defendants’ assets in and around the mining concession in August after a lawyer for the plaintiffs argued there was a “clear and present risk” that they could expatriate funds in order to avoid having to pay out if the court rules against them. The court did not state its reasoning in the Aug. 20 interim order.

That freeze is now lifted since the case was dismissed, presiding Justice Augustine Musa told Reuters.

Musa’s Wednesday ruling said that the High Court lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case because the court in Kono, where the complaint was made, was not the proper forum to issue a writ of summons.

Octea welcomed the ruling.

“Octea has consistently stated that the complaint was baseless and without merit. This has been confirmed by the ruling (of the court) in Sierra Leone ... which ruled emphatically in favour of Octea,” it said in a statement.

Benedict Jalloh, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed.

“We are considering issuing the writ again in Kenema, Bo, Makeni or Freetown,” he told Reuters.

Octea still faces legal challenges in Sierra Leone.

A similar case against Octea and related companies was filed by more than 70 plaintiffs in April last year, seeking damages of an unspecified amount.

That case and nine individual complaints are still pending, Jalloh told Reuters.

Representatives of BSGR and Octea told Reuters that eight of the 12 defendants listed in all the complaints don’t exist.

“If they can give us that evidence, that would be good,” Jalloh said. “I am surprised they are just raising this now. They never raised this in their objections.”

Representatives of BSGR and Octea also said they have no records for a significant number of the plaintiffs, saying it appeared as if many of them did not exist. Other plaintiffs have been compensated and allocated new houses in a relocation settlement, they said.

“Our clients are alive. We have interviewed them,” Jalloh said, describing claims to the contrary as “bogus and absurd”, although he said one of the original plaintiffs had passed away since last year.

Reuters has not been provided with copies of any submissions to the court that challenge the list of plaintiffs or defendants named in the complaints.

Writing By Edward McAllister; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Nick Tattersall