January 26, 2018 / 7:30 PM / 25 days ago

Nevsun appeals to Canada Supreme Court in Eritreans' forced labor lawsuit

TORONTO, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Nevsun Resources Ltd is appealing to Canada’s Supreme Court to throw out a lower court ruling which allowed Eritrean workers, who say they were forced to work at its mine, to have their lawsuit heard in Canada.

Canada’s top court said on Friday that Nevsun filed an application on Jan. 19, seeking permission to appeal a British Columbia court ruling in November which allowed the case to proceed in the western Canadian province.

The Supreme Court can grant or deny leave to appeal applications, which the firm representing the workers will respond to, and there is no fixed time for a decision.

Nevsun could not immediately be reached for comment.

Nevsun has previously argued that the case should be dismissed and that any lawsuit should be heard in Eritrea, not Canada. The B.C. Appeals Court said a lower court judgment was sound and dismissed all three of Nevsun’s appeals.

The case is being closely watched by Canadian miners that operate abroad because its outcome could increase litigation risk.

Canadian courts have also agreed to hear lawsuits against Tahoe Resources by Guatemalan men who say they were shot by the miner’s security guards and three lawsuits against HudBay Minerals by Guatemalans who say they were gang raped and shot by security forces.

If Nevsun loses the lawsuit at trial, the Vancouver-based company could potentially be forced to pay compensation for “severe physical and mental pain and suffering.”

In affidavits filed with the court, six men, who have since left Eritrea, said they were forced to work at Nevsun’s Bisha from 2008 to 2012 and that they endured harsh conditions at the Eritrean gold, copper and zinc mine, including hunger, illness and physical punishment at the hands of military commanders.

They said they were conscripts in the country’s national service system when they worked at Bisha, working not for Nevsun directly but for government-owned construction firms subcontracted to build the mine.

Nevsun says its mine is a model development. In legal filings, it said 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 United Nations has said Eritrea’s national service program is “similar to slavery in its effects”, an allegation the government rejects.

Eritrea, ruled by a former Marxist guerrilla leader since its independence from Ethiopia, sees conscription as crucial to its security. (Reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Susan Thomas)

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