Canada's Infinito loses arbitration over Venezuela gold deposits

CARACAS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A Washington-based international arbitration panel has dismissed a claim by Canadian mining company Infinito Gold against Venezuela relating to a long-running dispute over the development of gold deposits in the South American nation.

A 2002 decision to strip Infinito, then called Vannessa Ventures, of rights to develop the Las Cristinas mine did not breach a bilateral investment treaty between Canada and Venezuela, the Washington-based ICSID tribunal said in a ruling posted on its website.

Venezuela’s socialist government, which accuses the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes of taking the side of corporations at the expense of developing nations, celebrated the ruling.

“The exaggerated and illegitimate aspirations of this transnational company to claim as much as $1.045 billion ... were completely rejected by the arbitration tribunal,” said Attorney General Cilia Flores in a statement on Thursday.

She called it an “international recognition of the Venezuelan people’s sovereignty over their mineral resources.”

The company argued in its 2004 ICSID claim that it had bought the Las Cristinas concession in 2001 from Canada’s Placer Dome. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez refused to accept the sale of the concession and awarded it to Canada’s Crystallex International - but later scrapped that deal.

Infinito Gold acknowledged the ruling in a statement, adding that each side would bear its own legal costs plus half the cost of the proceedings.

Venezuela still faces arbitration suits related to Las Cristinas by Crystallex and Canada’s Rusoro - which had hoped to develop the area, considered to be one of Latin America’s largest undeveloped gold deposits.

Venezuela withdrew from ICSID last year after Chavez excoriated it as a representative of U.S. “imperialism.”

Companies that have disputes with Chavez’s government over a wave of nationalizations can no longer file disputes in that venue, though close to 20 claims are still pending.

Venezuela would have to respect those rulings because they would be considered binding by other ICSID signatory nations, meaning foreign courts could impound Venezuelan assets abroad and award them to claimants.

The largest cases involve U.S. energy giants Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, which are seeking billions of dollars in compensation for Chavez’s 2007 nationalization of oil projects in the Orinoco belt.