Swiss open criminal probe against metals refiner over Congo gold from war crimes

Swiss prosecutors confirmed Wednesday that a criminal investigation has been opened against one of the world's largest processors of precious metals over allegations that it laundered gold obtained through war crimes.

Earlier this week, the Geneva-based campaign group TRIAL filed a criminal complaint against Swiss refiner Argor-Heraeus, claiming the company processed three tons of gold ore between 2004 and 2005 that was obtained by an unlawful armed group through pillaging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Argor-Heraeus denies the allegations.

The TRIAL group said in a statement that "the refinery knew or should have assumed that the gold resulted from pillage, a war crime," and helped to finance an unlawful armed group in a brutal conflict, which under Swiss law is a crime for "aggravated laundering."

The Federal Prosecutors' Office in Bern confirmed it has examined the complaint and said it decided to open a formal probe against the company over "suspected money laundering in connection with a war crime and complicity in war crimes," but declined to provide more details, according to a statement.

At a news conference, Kathi Lynn Austin, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, outlined how TRIAL based its complaint on research into "rebels supported by the gold pipeline" that she began when she worked as a U.N. investigator in the Congo nearly a decade ago.

Congo suffered back-to-back civil wars starting in 1996 that drew in the armies of eight African nations in a scramble for the country's vast mineral reserves of diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and tungsten. The conflicts had their roots in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Some 5 million people died before the second war ended in 2003. But much of the fighting and lawlessness has continued in the competition for minerals coming out of eastern Congo, including the gold mines that soldiers and armed group leaders use to gain guns and power.

Argor-Heraeus said in a statement that it was greatly surprised to learn of TRIAL's complaint and "firmly refuses any such accusation." It said previous investigations by Swiss authorities already cleared the company of all the allegations, which date back to a U.N. report that Austin worked on.

The company said the report analyzed gold shipments it received from a British company, and that in 2005 Argor-Heraeus took "a further precautionary measure" of cutting ties with the British company and deciding not to accept any more materials from Uganda, through which the Congo rebels could send shipments.

Argor Heraeus, as a founding member of a joint initiative by private companies and the Swiss economic agency to increase transparency in the gold business, said it also would cooperate with authorities on the probe.