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TORONTO/ASMARA, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Bemnet Negash never got to say a proper goodbye to his family. In February 2006, government officials arrived at his school in the highlands of Eritrea and put him and his classmates on a bus to a military training camp. He was 20 years old, and still at school because a childhood illness had interrupted his education.
Bemnet's father heard what was happening and rushed to the school. "He tried to pass to me my medication and some money through a window of the bus on which I was being taken away, but it was not possible," said Bemnet in an affidavit filed with a Canadian court last year.
For much of the next five years, Bemnet toiled for the Eritrean national service, a massive conscription program instituted by the country's autocratic ruler in the mid-1990s. The conscripts become not just soldiers, but an army of cheap labor, forced to work for years for little pay, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has said the program is "similar to slavery in its effects" - a claim the Eritrean government rejects.
Bemnet, who slipped out of Eritrea in 2011, did not work just for the government when he was a conscript: In his legal filing he says he helped build a mine for Nevsun Resources, a Canadian company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
His story illustrates the challenges for foreign investors operating in this overlooked part of Africa. The Eritrean government says national service is necessary to protect and build the impoverished country. The risk for foreign companies is that while they may bring jobs and infrastructure, they could become entangled with a state where conscript labor is pervasive.
Nevsun says its investment in Eritrea brings social and economic benefits that mitigate the pressure for emigration. Even so, the number of Eritreans seeking refuge in Europe has increased about five-fold since 2008, according to Eurostat. In 2015, more than 45,000 Eritreans applied for asylum there.
Bemnet's affidavit is part of a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a team of Canadian lawyers on behalf of Eritreans who allege that between 2008 and 2012 they were forced to work at Bisha, a mine operated and majority-owned by Nevsun. Lodged with five similar accounts from other workers, the affidavit says Bemnet was forced to work for about a dollar a day in harsh conditions.
Bemnet and other workers want to claim compensation from Nevsun for "severe physical and mental pain and suffering." In the next few months the Supreme Court of British Columbia is expected to decide whether the legal case can continue.
Nevsun, which had revenues of $357 million in 2015, denies the allegations and touts its mine as a model of responsible development. In its own legal filings, it says the Eritrean military never provided labor to the mine. Even if it did, the company argues, Nevsun was not directly responsible for employing the workers.
The Canadian company owns 60 percent of the Bisha Mining Share Company (BMSC), which owns and operates the mine, and the Eritrean state owns the remaining 40 percent. BMSC in turn hired Segen, an Eritrean government firm, to do construction work at the mine.
Bemnet says he worked for Segen, not Nevsun. But his lawyers say Nevsun should be held responsible for what happened at the mine, alleging Nevsun had authority over Segen and did not take reasonable steps to prevent mistreatment of workers.
Todd Romaine, Nevsun's vice president of corporate social responsibility, denied the allegations and said in a written statement that the company "will vigorously defend itself in court." He said BMSC is "an employer of choice" in Eritrea and provides "well-paying, intrinsically rewarding jobs for local people ... The company has made a significant financial contribution to the country in terms of taxation, royalties, local employment (and) supply chain."
Romaine said Nevsun has a screening process to ensure that no conscripts work at the mine. "Nevsun is a force for good in Eritrea," he said.
Nevsun also says that if its prohibition against the use of conscripts was ever breached, state-controlled Segen was to blame. It says that it had been obliged by the Eritrean government to use Segen to build the mine, and that Nevsun had no control over Segen. Reuters tried to contact Segen via telephone and email, but received no comment.
Alem Kibreab, director-general of Eritrea's Department of Mines, said no conscripts worked at Bisha, and that some migrants made up stories of mistreatment in the hope of gaining permission to stay in Europe.
In affidavits filed with the Canadian court, several workers from the mine have backed up Nevsun. Kahsay Gebremichael, a foreman with Segen, said that he had worked at Bisha for seven years, by choice. "I was not forced to work at the Bisha Mine by anyone. I can quit my job if I want to," he said in an affidavit filed in November 2015.
Bemnet and the other former workers involved in the lawsuit were living in Ethiopia, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland when they swore affidavits in 2014 and 2015. Reuters was unable to contact them and their lawyers declined to make them available for interviews, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.
But Reuters has reviewed the former workers' detailed allegations and, while their case is not new, this article draws on court records that have not been previously reported, including Bemnet's affidavit. It also draws on accounts of two former foreign workers who helped build the mine: One said employees of Segen endured tough conditions in 2009 and 2010, working without adequate food, water or shelter.
The Eritrean government dismisses criticism of its national service program as politically motivated and biased. Government officials deny that national service involves forced labor and say a program to improve pay began in mid-2015. They insist conscription remains vital for the security of the nation, which only secured independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after decades of conflict.
Bemnet spent his first weeks of military training at a camp called Wia, near the Red Sea, where he slept on the ground in the open, according to his affidavit. Next he was moved to a desolate stretch of coastline, where he worked seven days a week, completing more training, gathering large stones and building houses. He was still there in September 2006, when, halfway around the world, then Nevsun Chief Executive John Clarke pitched Eritrea to mining investors at one of the industry's top conferences, the Denver Gold Forum.
Canada is home to hundreds of small mining companies, many exploring for gold both in Canada and around the world. Staffed by a few executives and a small board of directors, these companies buy mineral claims and raise a few million dollars at a time to pay for exploratory drilling. One strategy is to focus on countries where poor infrastructure, skill shortages or political unrest have made mining difficult, leaving rich deposits untouched.
Clarke's presentation focused on Gash Barka, a region in western Eritrea where gold was mined during the colonial era. No one had built or operated a mine in the country for decades because of the risk of conflict and fears the government might expropriate assets. So Clarke promoted the project, which he called Bisha, by emphasising Eritrea's good roads and well-educated people.
"Given that it is a poor country, they're just using their resources extremely well, including their youngsters, who do a couple years national service after university, everybody contributing to nation building," he said, in a presentation that until recently was available online.
Clarke, who is no longer with Nevsun, did not respond to requests for comment.
National service in Eritrea, which still fears attack from its far larger neighbor Ethiopia, has no set length, according to the government. The country has been ruled by former Marxist guerrilla leader Isaias Afwerki since independence. In 1998, in the midst of a border war with Ethiopia, Isaias declared a state of emergency and extended national service.
Eritrea's Information Minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, told Reuters that the length of national service had originally been 18 months, but that it had been "prolonged" because of border tensions with Ethiopia. He did not specify how long national service now lasts.
A U.N. commission charged with investigating human rights abuses in Eritrea said in a June 2015 report that all sectors of the Eritrean economy rely on conscripts. Most citizens are conscripted before they finish high school, and undergo limited military training before being assigned to jobs. Some are sent to work in construction or farming, or as civil servants or engineers. In a statement, Eritrea said the allegations of human rights abuses are "totally unfounded and devoid of all merit."
By September 2008, the Bisha mine had its permits and work was underway at the site. As mining companies often do, Nevsun hired an engineering, procurement and construction management firm to run construction, selecting a South African company called Senet. One of Senet's employees was Mike Goosen, a civil construction supervisor who arrived in 2009.
Day to day, Goosen and other Senet staff supervised Segen, the Eritrean government-owned contractor brought in to do construction work. While Senet declined to comment on its work at Bisha, citing the ongoing legal action, Goosen told Reuters he became friendly with some Segen workers, though they lived some distance from the main camp. He visited their camp and was alarmed by the conditions he found. None of the buildings had proper windows or doors. Workers slept on the floor, with no mosquito nets. "We had a lot of them going down with malaria," he told Reuters.
The workers were "continuously hungry," he said, and subsisted on lentil soup and bread. Drinking water was left in the hot sun all day. Goosen said he asked cooks at the main camp to set aside leftover food for Segen workers but Segen managers told him to stop.
In affidavits filed to support the lawsuit against Nevsun, former Eritrean workers described rations of lentil soup and bread. "We were always tired and hungry, and fell ill very often," reads the affidavit of Mihretab Yemane Tekle, who said he worked at the Bisha mine from February to October 2010, and now has refugee status in Ethiopia. "Many conscripts caught malaria at Bisha."
In an affidavit filed in June 2014, Segen manager Abadi Gebremeskel Alemayo described the death of a worker named Berhane, who he said was a conscript.
"One day, he was building partitions in the residences for the foreign workers, and he just collapsed," he said. "In his report, the doctor said it was heat stroke. I buried him myself - I took his body to his village and buried it."
Abadi, a safety officer at Bisha, said in his affidavit that he knew some of the workers were conscripts because he attended a Segen meeting in mid-2009 at which the use of conscripts was discussed. Reuters was unable to contact Abadi for comment.
Segen workers were on site in significant numbers during the mine's initial construction from 2008 to 2011. In February 2009, for example, more than half the workers on site were from Segen, according to a Senet progress report filed with the Canadian court.
In a 2013 press release, Nevsun said it first heard allegations that conscripts were working at Bisha in early 2009. In response, Nevsun instructed Senet to change Segen's contracts to explicitly prohibit the use of national service members. Nevsun also told Senet to start screening workers to ensure there were no conscripts at the mine. Court filings from Senet say screening began in May 2009; the system involved workers providing certificates to show they had finished national service.
It is unclear how effective the screening was, said a foreign worker who was on site at the time and spoke on condition of anonymity. Segen would put off filing paperwork, telling Senet that its workers were no one else's business. When papers did arrive, they were photocopies of Eritrean documents that no one outside Segen understood because they were written in the local language of Tigrinya, the foreign worker said.
In an affidavit for the court case, Senet project director Pieter Theron described the screening process, and said that as far as he knew, the Eritrean military was not involved in building Bisha. Theron declined requests for comment. In his affidavit, he said allegations about harsh working conditions were not consistent with his observations: "It is simply not the case that individuals worked in dangerous conditions and were often injured or ill."
Bemnet arrived at Bisha with the rest of his military unit in February 2010, according to his affidavit. He was told to take off his military uniform, and given grey coveralls to wear, with "Segen" across the back. An officer laid out some rules for his time at Bisha. He was not to tell anyone that he was a national service member. If asked about his pay he should say he was being paid $21 to $22 per day. He would actually be paid 450 nakfa per month, about $1 a day, according to the legal claim.
Bemnet and other conscripts were sometimes allowed to spend time in a nearby town. One Sunday in July 2010, he stayed late in town, eating and drinking with a friend, according to his affidavit. In the early hours, a group of military men came to retrieve him. Bemnet said they accused him of trying to desert and leave Eritrea. He was tied up with his friend, he said, with only short breaks for five days, and then sent to prison.
Bemnet said he was not sent back to Bisha after his release in November 2010, but remained in national service. In 2011, stationed near the Ethiopian border, he saw a chance to escape and swam across a river with two other men. From Ethiopia, Bemnet traveled to Sudan, Libya and across the Mediterranean to Italy. Like thousands of other Eritreans, he applied for asylum in Germany.
Many Eritreans aiming for Europe cross the Sahara into Libya, risking death by dehydration, starvation and violence in the desert. In Libya, some are kidnapped by Islamic State, and executed or enslaved before they can attempt to cross the Mediterranean. The United Nations refugee agency reported that 11,564 Eritreans made it to Italy in the first seven months of 2016. That was more than from any country other than Nigeria.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a report about the alleged use of conscripts at Bisha. Anticipating the report, Nevsun sent out a press release that expressed "regret if certain employees of Segen were conscripts ... in the early part of the Bisha mine's construction phase." It hired Lloyd Lipsett, a Canadian human rights lawyer, to assess the mine.
Lipsett's reports have focused on the period since he was hired. In a 2015 report he said he had found nothing to corroborate allegations against the company, but that it was difficult to draw conclusions about anything before 2013.
In an interview, Lipsett said there were limits to what he could do and how reliable witnesses were. "It's hard in a country like Eritrea where there is, I think, a plausible and potential risk that people may feel intimidated or be threatened with reprisal," he said. "I think you just have to work at it, and see what the weight of the evidence points to ... If someone is directly lying, I can't say that I will always catch that."
In February, Nevsun invited Reuters to visit the mine and interview managers and government officials on site and in Eritrea's capital, Asmara. During that tour, Romaine, the company's vice president for corporate social responsibility, said: "We take all allegations very seriously, but to date, based on all our extensive investigations, we have not found any corroborating evidence to support the allegations being made."
Martell reported from Toronto, Blair from Asmara; Additional reporting by Jim Morris and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver, and Selam Gebrekidan in New York; Editing By Richard Woods and Simon Robinson