Oryx ordered to disclose papers in libel action

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The Independent Online

A company allegedly used as a front for a Zimbabwean army diamond mining operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo was also involved in currency smuggling, it has been claimed in the High Court.

An employee of Oryx Natural Resources made two trips carrying "huge quantities" of US dollars from London to Kinshasa via Harare where they were exchanged for Congolese francs and taken to rebel areas, Desmond Browne QC, told the court. US dollars were also brought back from Kinshasa to Harare, he said.

Mr Browne was appearing for The Independent, which was yesterday granted an order instructing Oryx to disclose documents relating to an alleged attempt to conceal the Zimbabwean army's substantial interest in the mine. Oryx is suing The Independent for libel over an article published in November last year which made claims about Oryx's links with the Zimbabwean leadership, and diamond and currency smuggling.

Oryx was also granted an order yesterday requiring the newspaper to disclose source material, such as notes and correspondence, but not the identities of sources. Mr Browne said it would be wrong for the newspaper to disclose documents that identified individual sources because of threats that had been made to a number of them.

The Independent also requested further information about Oryx's case, but that application was rejected by the judge, Mr Justice Eady. According to submissions made by the newspaper and read to the court, on one occasion the flight to Kinshasa was given a Zimbabwean military flight number, in order to ensure that there were no customs checks on arrival.

In Kinshasa, the US dollars were allegedly changed into Congolese francs before being returned to Harare on a private jet belonging to Thamer Al Shanfari, the former president and chief executive of Oryx. The newspaper alleges the Congolese francs were ultimately destined for rebel forces in Congo.

Mr Browne said one currency trip ended in "disaster" when an Oryx employee was arrested on the Tarmac at Kinshasa airport carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Congolese francs.

The company says money was being legitimately transferred to the mine to pay for running costs and wages. Mr Browne said if this were true there would be legal and banking documents to support their case, but none had been disclosed.

Richard Rampton QC, for Oryx, denied that there had been any illegal currency smuggling. On behalf of Oryx he said the newspaper's account was "entirely fictional".

The order requires Oryx to disclose by the end of January next year a series of documents including shareholder records and registers, correspondence and minutes. But the judge said it should be limited to relevant documents only and rejected an application for further information about the alleged currency smuggling trips.

Oryx is also required to produce originals of all documents where possible. The court heard that the only original document so far produced was a share register relating to Sengamines, the company set up to carry out the mining operation, which was presented in court yesterday.

Mr Browne said although the defence had received a certified copy, it was not until he saw the original in court that it became clear that some entries had been subject to "major Tippex-ing".

The two-day hearing in the High Court is a preliminary hearing before the main trial for libel which is expected to be heard next summer. Oryx, Mr Shanfari, and Geoffrey White, deputy managing director of the firm, deny all allegations of wrongdoing.