CORRECTED-Plaintiffs in Sierra Leone diamond mine lawsuit request freeze of Steinmetz subsidiary's assets

(Corrects Aug. 18 story to clarify sourcing and month in fifth paragraph)

FREETOWN/JOHANNESBURG, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Sierra Leoneans seeking damages for alleged environmental degradation around a diamond mine have applied for a freezing order on the assets of Octea, a subsidiary of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources (BSGR).

In an affidavit to the high court of Sierra Leone, seen by Reuters, the lawyer for the plaintiffs said 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.

Sierra Leone’s High Court discussed the application for a freezing order on Tuesday and will continue on Wednesday, a lawyer for the plaintiffs and a court clerk said. A spokesman for BSGR said the company would not comment until there was a legal ruling.

Octea has described the accusations in the case as “baseless and without merit.”

A lawsuit was filed against Octea subsidiary Koidu Limited and related companies 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.

The affidavit said that without a freezing order, plaintiffs might have to seek execution of a possible judgment in their favour in as many as seven separate jurisdictions, because most of the 12 defendants are not domiciled in Sierra Leone, and BSGR is in administration proceedings.

BSGR and Octea Limited are registered in Guernsey.

Britain’s High Court issued a freezing order in December 2019 against Steinmetz and the seven other defendants in an ongoing case against Brazilian iron ore miner Vale, freezing assets including a yacht and two Bombardier aircraft held by BSGR parent company Nysco Management Corporation, court documents show.

Sierra Leone’s mines minister Timothy Musa Kabba did not reply to a request for comment. (Reporting by Cooper Inveen in Freetown and Helen Reid in Johannesburg; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Mark Potter)