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Mining Firm Accused of Using Forced Labor

VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) - A Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company uses forced labor and torture in its Eritrean gold mine, three Eritrean refugees claim in court.

Gize Yebeyo Araya, Kesete Tekle Fshazion, and Miretab Yemane Tekle sued Nevsun Resources on Nov. 20 in British Columbia Supreme Court.

They claim they were forced to work in the company's Bisha mine, which "was built using forced labour, a form of slavery, obtained from the plaintiffs and others coercively and under threat of torture by the Eritrean government and its contracting arms."

The men call Eritrea a "repressive, one party state" that conscripts, tortures, detains and threatens laborers for projects, including Nevsun's Bisha mine.

They claim the country uses a "National Service Program" established in the mid-90s that forces Eritrean nationals into mandatory military service, which was expanded in 2002 to include conscripts to provide labor construction firms owned by senior military officials.

The program is "brutal," and "beatings, torture, and prolonged arbitrary detention are common," the complaint states. Laborers are paid meager wages and are punished if they try to leave the national service, even after their 18 months are up, the men say.

They claim Nevsun knew about the harsh conditions and human rights abuses when it set up shop in 2008. They cite several reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Since 2011, the mine has generated more approximately $1.6 billion in revenue, $250 million of which went to the Eritrean government's state-owned Eritrian National Mining Corp., "thereby providing massive financial support and incentives to continue Eritrea's system of forced labour and human rights abuses," according to the complaint.

The men claim conscripts are forced to work long hours in extreme heat and six-day workweeks. Workers found to be "disobedient" are threatened with detention at a notorious prison, tied up and left in the sun, or ordered to "roll in the hot sand while being beaten with sticks until losing consciousness," according to the complaint.

Nevsun denied the allegations in a statement shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

Nevsun CEO Cliff Davis said that Nevsun is confident that the allegations are unfounded. "Based on various company-led and third party audits, the Bisha Mine has adhered at all times to international standards of governance, workplace conditions, and health and safety," Davis said in the statement.

The action was filed on behalf of all conscripts of the National Service Program who worked at the Bisha mine and others who were housed at contractor and military compounds providing labor for the mine from 2008 to the present.

The men are represented by Joe Fiorante with Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman, in Vancouver.

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